Princeton’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving touchdowns, Bears undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted is a tight end now — despite the fact that the official NFL game book including his first professional touchdown still lists him as a wide receiver.
Of course, the game book from Thanksgiving in Detroit, where the Bears rallied from a 10-point deficit with their season circling the drain for a 24-20 win, can’t capture what an incredible 18-yard touchdown it was, just as it can’t begin to illustrate what a remarkable story Horsted has become.
In his second career game and first-ever start, less than seven months after the 225-pound former Tigers wideout and leadoff-hitting centerfielder parlayed a rookie minicamp tryout into his first NFL contract — as a Bears tight end — Horsted’s spectacular lunging TD catch helped spark the best offensive output of the season.
A season in which Horsted — who’s now played 11 total snaps on offense — is tied not with Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen but fellow Ivy Leaguer Ben Braunecker for the TD lead among Bears tight ends … with 1.
“It was in slow motion and yet I don’t really remember what happened. I just remember looking the ball in my hands and rolling over so they couldn’t rip it out,” a jubilant Jester said from the winning locker room. “… I knew I caught the ball but I want to go back and watch it. I knew it was a contested catch and I knew that there’s no way that ball was dropped. That’s all I can tell you.”
Throw a dart at a board listing all the Bears position groups on offense and you’re likely to land on a disappointment, but the TE corps is the only group with a former Super Bowl champion and his $32-million deal (Burton) on IR and a second-round bust seemingly buried in Matt Nagy’s doghouse in his third season (Shaheen). The TE corps is the one that’s been the bane of Pace’s non-QB acquisition history (who could forget the $10 million he wasted on Dion Sims, in addition to a huge whiff on Shaheen and, at best, vast overpay on Burton, whose anything-but-certain return in 2020 just might hinge on Horsted’s continued development in the final four games.
Yet scan a Bears depth chart and listed before Horsted also are Braunecker, a special-teams stud with limited pass-catching potential who missed his first game of the season Thursday with a self-reported concussion; J.P. Holtz, an early-season waiver claim whose best contributions have come as the lead back in sporadic I formations; and Bradley Sowell, the other converted tight end who’s been cut more times this season than total snaps logged.
“It’s totally different,” Nagy kindly described of Chicago’s TE issues this season. “We all kind of joked about it at the beginning of the season and the middle of the season how many tight ends we’ve had. It’s come to help us here a little bit to at least get through and see where some of these guys are at. It also gives a guy like Horsted a chance to see what he can do. It presents some opportunities.”
Thursday provided the most compelling evidence yet that of all the tight ends, Horsted’s future might just appear to be the brightest. All he seemingly can do is flash ridiculous ball skills on highlight-reel TD catches, like Thursday’s, or his 8-yarder in the preseason finale, or the 17-yarder one week earlier in the exhibition season.
“Jesper ran a good route, beat his guy that was covering him, and I just put it in a spot where he could make a play,” Trubiskys said. “He made an awesome catch, so it was pretty cool that he got his first touchdown today. It was a good play, well-executed.”
And how sweet would it be for Pace if Horsted can help mitigate the general manager’s previous missteps at the position but more importantly help solidify what’s among the most complex, critical — and underperforming — roles in Nagy’s scheme, the “U” TE post?
We don’t have to tell the sociology major from Princeton — who once eschewed contract offers from MLB teams that fringed on but ultimately fell below his $500,000 mandate to pivot from the gridiron to a professional baseball diamond — about small sample sizes. He’s the first to admit how much work lies ahead if he’s to ascend past nice Thanksgiving story to Pace’s latest undrafted gem.
“No, there’s not [glory there], but it was pretty fun,” Horsted said of his relatively short path to NFL playtime from the practice squad. “It was learning a new position, and I’ve always liked to learn new things. And then getting in the playbook and getting bigger, I just kind of embraced the challenge and took it day by day, knowing that my time was going to come.”
Horsted’s time is now here, and his biggest NFL contribution to date couldn’t have been more punctual.