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Chicago Bears 2021 Position Battles: Which tight ends will take a step?

We’re moving over to the tight ends in our Chicago Bears training camp preview series.

NFL: Chicago Bears OTA Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the day Matt Nagy was hired to coach the Chicago Bears, we’ve heard about how he values the tight end position. He calls the U his adjuster, as he likes to line him up all over the offense — and shift him and motion him — all as a way to see what the defense is doing. Tight ends in similar offensive schemes have thrived, most notably Trevis Kelce and Zach Ertz, but many versions of the West Coast Offense utilize the move tight end in a featured role these days.

The Bears got decent production from the position in 2018, but 2019 it was nearly non existent, which led to the parade of tight ends before the 2020 season. Chicago settled on a free agent pick up and a second round draft pick a year ago, and most of the other tight ends they brought in were sent packing.

The Bears opened the season with 5 at the position last year, but they usually only keep 4 on the active roster, so there should be a nice battle for the reserve spots this season.

Roster Locks

Jimmy Graham isn’t the same athlete he was at 24-years old, but at 34 he plays the game with more nuance. He’ll body the defender to box out for a catch, he’ll settle into a zone to make himself available, and he’ll still flash some occasional speed to catch a defense sleeping.

The key to him thriving at the U might be the development of the starting Y Cole Kmet, because Nagy has talked about Kmet’s ability to be moved around the offense as well. If Kmet can prove worthy of an uptick in snaps and steal some of Graham’s playing time at the U, that’ll keep the old veteran fresher for the new 17 game season. Last year Graham led the position group with 636 snaps to Kmet’s 603, so if the Bears can get that closer to 700 for Kmet and 500 for Graham I think both players can be more effective.

Players often make a jump in play in their second professional season, and Kmet’s offseason included a stint at Tight End U to learn from some of the best. Last year’s offseason was all jumbled up due to the pandemic, so this summer should have Kmet primed for a break out season.

A good bet to make it

If Kmet is able to get some reps at the U, that could open up some in-line playing time for J.P. Holtz, who has also been a core special teamer. He’s also able to line up as an H-Back, so his versatility makes me pretty sure he makes the roster.

UPDATE: On Sunday the Bears inked veteran tight end Jesse James to a 1-year deal, and at 27-years old with 88 games played and 54 starts in his six year career, he seems like a possible backup at the Y position. He’s also an experienced special teamer, so if he pans out like the Bears expect he should be on the 53-man roster. The pick up of James could push Holtz to the bubble depending on how many the Bears carry at the position.

On the bubble

The Bears only ran two or more tight ends on the field on 31.8% of their offensive plays a year ago, so it’s possible they only open the season with three and look to stash one or two on the practice squad.

If they go with a fourth it’ll come down to holdover Jesper Horsted or free agent pick up Jake Butt. Horsted is a converted wide receiver, so he’s more of a reserve U, whereas Butt will try to earn a spot backing up at the Y. Injuries have derailed Butt’s career, but if he’s healthy and close to what he was he may surprise. This is Horsted’s third year in the system so his familiarity could give him the edge. The loser of this battle probably ends up on the practice squad.

EDIT: Butt has elected to retire from the NFL.

Undrafted free agent Scooter Harrington is a 6’5”, 250 pound in-line player that could land on the practice squad, but I don’t see any way he cracks the 53-man roster.