Bears Offseason Outlook: Tight End

Tight end was a glaring weakness for the Bears in 2019.

Chris Emma
February 06, 2020 - 10:52 am
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Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. You can find them all here.

(670 The Score) The depth of the Bears' tight end trouble was reflected in one fact in 2019.

The team didn't have a single tight end top the 100-yard receiving mark for the entirety of the season.

That pivotal position in coach Matt Nagy's offense was nonexistent and is now a top priority to address this offseason. 

"We have to be honest with ourselves," general manager Ryan Pace said of the tight end position. "Availability is critical in our league."

With no sure answers at tight end, Pace and the Bears must evaluate and rebuild the position. That could bring some subtractions before additions. 

Who's back: Trey Burton, 28; Adam Shaheen, 25; Ben Braunecker, 25; Jesper Horsted, 22; Eric Saubert, 25

The Bears return a full boat of tight ends -- meaning releases will be coming.

Free agents: Bradley Sowell, 31; J.P. Holtz, 27

Sowell has aspirations of joining the Bears' front office if his time as a player is done. Holtz proved to be a solid option at fullback.

How they got here

When the Bears signed Trey Burton to a four-year, $32-million deal two years ago, they imagined him becoming a dynamic weapon at the U tight end position and forming a tandem with Adam Shaheen, who would fill the Y spot.

The Bears' plans haven't panned out. Burton spent nearly all of 2019 managing an injury and was shut down in November after recording just 14 catches for 84 yards in eight games. What started as a groin injury that sidelined Burton for the Bears' wild-card round loss in January 2019 was followed by a sports hernia procedure that spring. Burton then dealt with a groin injury throughout training camp last summer, and he was healthy only for a brief period of last August before his injury issues returned.

Shaheen was a healthy scratch in the Bears' game on Nov. 10 before being shut down later that month with an apparent foot injury. A second-round pick in 2017, Shaheen has 26 catches over 27 career games in three seasons.

Instead of having a talented twosome at tight end, the Bears have a pair of voids to fill. They moved Braunecker, Holtz and Horsted into bigger roles but didn't come away with any lasting solutions.

Pace, Nagy and the Bears seemed to understand how much their tight end woes hurt them. It altered their offensive scheme and forced adjustments to personnel packages and play-calling. 

Quote to note

"Let's be real, with Trey and Adam, not having those guys hurt our offense. Matt talks all the time about the importance of the tight end position to our offense. We lost two tight ends this year ... We like those guys. They're talented. But we need availability at the position as well."

-- Pace on the Bears' top two tight ends

What's ahead

In a season-ending press conference, Pace didn't rule out any tight ends from being part of the Bears' future. That included Shaheen, whose tenure has been a major disappointment.

"Shaheen is talented," Pace said. "I think what's hurt his development, especially being (from a) small school, is the time he missed. When he's played, we've liked what we have seen. He just hasn't put it out there long enough. We talked to him about that. We're frustrated. He's frustrated. He needs to stay healthy to continue to develop as a young player."

Change to the current group seems inevitable. Cutting Shaheen would open up more than $1 million in cap space. It's not much, but he's taking up a roster spot and producing no value. Burton is unlikely to be released given that he was productive in 2018. He underwent hip surgery in December, and the Bears hope that will help resolve his health struggles.

The Bears should consider a reunion with three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who's a free agent after being cut by the Panthers. But Chicago has yet to show any interest in that possibility. Olsen, 34, had 52 receptions for 597 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. Those numbers surpassed the production of the Bears' tight end group as a whole.

What's more likely for the Bears is to draft a tight end whom they believe can become a long-term starter. This draft class is deep at tight end, and the Bears own two second-round picks at No. 43 and No. 50 overall. Washington's Hunter Bryant, Dayton's Adam Trautman and Notre Dame's Cole Kmet could be options in that range.

Whatever path they choose, the Bears know they must have an answer at tight end entering the new season.

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