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Chicago Bears 2021 Roster Turnover: Could the tight end shuffle continue?

In this 13 part series we’ll take an in depth look at each position group for the Chicago Bears with an eye towards the 2021 season. We’ll speculate on who stays, who goes, and some potential additions we’d like to see general manager Ryan Pace make.

NFL: DEC 06 Lions at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After having one of the worst tight end groups in the NFL during the 2019 season, the position bounced back in a big way for the Chicago Bears in 2020. Two years ago their five tight ends combined for 44 receptions, 395 yards, and 2 touchdowns, but this year their top draft pick and free agent signee combined for 78 catches, 699 yards, and 10 TDs.

That 2020 stat line for tight ends is the best in Matt Nagy’s three years coaching the team, but with the way his offense wants to use the position it should be doing more.

Here’s how the tight end position looks as the team readies itself for the 2021 season.

Cole Kmet - Signed through 2023 - Kmet started slow a year ago, which is common with rookie tight ends, but he came on strong in the second half. During his first 9 games, Kmet only had 6 catches on 8 targets, but in the remaining 8 games he had 40 targets and 25 receptions. He improved as a blocker as the season wore on as well, and he solidified his place as the team’s starting Y tight end moving forward.

“As I got more playing time, I think I showed why I belong on this level and what I can do,” Kmet told our Jacob Infante in a recent exclusive interview. “I’m excited to take what I did at the end of this year and bring that into year two.”

The soon to be 22-year old has his best football in front of him, and he’s athletic enough to give the Bears some positional flexibility with his ability to occasionally flex out and play some move tight end.

Jimmy Graham - Signed through 2021 - The Bears signed Graham to play the U tight end role, but his mentorship of Kmet was an added bonus. “The kid really has unlimited potential, and I’m excited to see where he’s headed,” Graham said of Kmet via NBC Sports. “Hopefully I can still continue to help him get there. No matter where I’m at, I’m always going to help him. I’m always going to be close with him, and he’ll always truly be my little brother.”

Graham has expressed a desire to stay in Chicago, but with his contract paying him $10 million in 2021, he’s a possible cap casualty. He’ll turn 35 next season, but he showed he can still play, and he’s a good fit for the Bears culture, so perhaps an extension to lower his cap hit is on the horizon.

Demetrius Harris - Free agent - Harris was always going to be the placeholder for the Y until Kmet was ready, and from week 9 on he only received a handful of snaps on offense each game. He still was playing on special teams, and that experience could net him another one year deal to come back and compete for a reserve role in 2021.

J.P. Holtz - Exclusive rights free agent - Holtz played sparingly on offense, but as a back up Y, occasional fullback, and special teams player, I think the Bears will bring him back. EDIT: The Bears did re-sign him for 2021.

Darion Clark - Signed through 2021 - Clark, the former basketball player from USC, spent all of the 2020 season on injured reserve. He’ll be in camp most likely fighting for a practice squad job next year.

Jesper Horsted - Signed a reserve/future contract - After getting some game day run as a rookie in 2019, last year Hortsed spent the entire season on the practice squad. This year will be his second full offseason working out as a tight end after a stellar career as a wide out at Princeton, and I’m curious to see how he looks this summer.

2021 OUTLOOK - While I would like to see Graham stick around, I can’t see anyway the Bears make his contract work, especially with the cap expected to come down from the 2020 season. So if Graham is cut the Bears will find themselves needing a starting U tight end. Horsted and Clark could compete for that spot, but I don’t think the Bears would roll into the year with just those two vying for the job.

Kmet’s role is bound to increase, but they’ll still need a move TE on occasion. There aren’t many exciting names in free agency that would come in on a reasonable contract, so don’t be surprised to see the Bears draft a tight end for a second consecutive year.

Florida’s Kyle Pitts is the top tight end this draft, but he’ll be long gone before the Bears pick at 20, so perhaps the Bears go back to Notre Dame and grab Tommy Tremble in the middle rounds. Tremble didn’t put up big numbers for the Fighting Irish, but his athleticism certainly flashed and his best football may be ahead of him. Bowling Green’s Quintin Morris had a nice week at the Senior Bowl and could be an option as well.

How do you see the tight end position playing out for Chicago in 2021?