Bears' Struggling Offense Feeling Void At Tight End

Trey Burton has played in less than half of the Bears' offensive snaps.

Chris Emma
October 23, 2019 - 4:54 pm
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- The role designed for tight end Trey Burton in the Bears' offense is multi-dimensional. His position is essential in coach Matt Nagy's scheme.

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Burton is a pre-snap "adjuster," as Nagy has termed it, a player often motioned to allow a read of the defense -- man or zone, sub or base. When the ball is snapped, Burton as the 'U' tight end is supposed to create a mismatch in coverage, which can open up the defense for the Bears' other options. 

While the struggles of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and a non-existent running game are the Bears' more pressing issues on offense, the void at tight end has only compounded those problems. Trubisky is struggling with basic reads in coverage, the running backs are hitting walls as defensive fronts cheat in and the Bears are lacking an offensive identity. Part of that is because they're missing a threat at tight end.

Burton can help the Bears establish Nagy's visions for his offense, but he hasn't played his envisioned role since suffering a groin injury in late August.

"He’s definitely trending upward in his health," Nagy said of Burton on Wednesday. "I’m not seeing him regressing health-wise to where he’s playing slower or you see him physically getting beaten. But he’s not 100 percent yet. We knew that at this point right now he wasn’t going to be. But he’s a valuable asset there with us."

Signed to a four-year, $32-million deal in March 2018, Burton produced a strong debut season with the Bears. He hauled in 54 receptions for 569 yards and six touchdowns in 2018. But he has struggled with health since suffering a groin injury ahead of the Bears' loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round last January, a game in which the team first came to realize how he's missed in its offense.

Burton has endured a difficult time getting himself healthy and back to form.

"Really frustrating," Burton said. "I would never choose to do anything like this. I didn't think it would last this long, but it has.

"I hope we can get there. But it's a week-by-week, day-by-day kind of thing."

The Bears have been unsuccessful in establishing the options at tight end beyond Burton. The team has five tight ends on the active roster and two on the practice squad. Nobody has earned a meaningful role in the offense.

Adam Shaheen, a second-round pick in 2017, has 26 receptions over 25 career games. Ben Braunecker has proved to be mostly a special teams asset. Bradley Sowell slimmed down from tackle size but has been released three times this season while appearing in two games. J.P. Holtz, a waiver claim on Sept. 11, has seen the third-most snaps at tight end behind Burton and Shaheen.

Burton has played 49.4 percent of the Bears' offensive snaps this season after working 80 percent in 2018. In the first six games of 2018, he posted 27 receptions for 343 yards and four touchdowns. Through six games this season, he has 13 catches for 68 yards and no touchdowns. The Bears' tight ends have a combined 26 receptions.

The absence of Burton has affected the likes of Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson, two of the other adjusters in Nagy's offense. Cohen has managed just 4.0 yards per touch from scrimmage this season, the lowest mark of his career. He averaged 6.9 yards per touch from scrimmage in 2018. Patterson is averaging 6.6 yards per touch from scrimmage, the lowest-mark of his seven-year career save for a 2015 season in which he only had four touches from scrimmage.

Without Burton on the field, opposing defenses can key in on top target Allen Robinson and others. Foes are also daring Trubisky to beat them over the top, something has hasn't accomplished with any consistency. The Bears are averaging 4.4 yards per offensive play and struggling to get their playmakers incorporated.

"We all know what we're capable of, just talent-wise on offense, what we can be, what we did last year," Trubisky said. "If you don't believe in that, you're in the wrong place."

The Bears getting production from their tight end position could prove crucial to a more consistent offense, but doubt remains. Burton doesn't know when he will be back to full health. Shaheen doesn't play the U tight end role and has only played 36.4 percent of the offensive snaps. Holtz, Braunecker and Sowell likely won't be counted on for a key role. Rookies Jesper Horsted and Dax Raymond are still developing on the practice squad.

Perhaps the Bears' best bet for production at tight end could come in a deal before the NFL's trade deadline at 3 p.m. CT next Tuesday. General manager Ryan Pace is limited in draft capital to offer, but his hand may be forced.

After Burton's first season with the Bears was defined by versatility and production, his second year has been stunted by injury. Nagy, Trubisky and a sputtering Bears offense have been left working without the tight end involved.

Nagy still has hope that his offense can click as he envisioned -- and the way it often did in 2018. But the Bears are working without a pivotal piece of those plans.

Injury report: Bears cornerback and key special teams player Sherrick McManis was the lone player listed on the team's injury report Wednesday. He remains in the concussion protocol and didn't practice.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.