In the Bears offense, the tight end is supposed to be one of the more important positions on the field. As we know, head coach Matt Nagy’s offense is a derivative of the ones in Kansas City and Philadelphia, where the TE position is much more productive than we saw from the position in Chicago last season.
Last season in Philadelphia, the Eagles coaxed 149 receptions from their top two tight ends (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert) for almost 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. In Kansas City, the combo of Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had 115 receptions for 1500 yards and 13 touchdowns. Looking at the Bears, Trey Burton led the TE group with 54 receptions, followed by Adam Shaheen (five) and Ben Braunecker (three). Their total TE count was seven. Looking at the comparison, the Bears have to get more production form the position.
There were several reasons the Bears didn’t get the production that Kansas City and Philadelphia did — with the most important being the offense was new to everyone involved. In Year 2 under Nagy, the players won’t all be going through the learning process like they were a year ago.
Another reason was injuries. Adam Shaheen injured his foot during the preseason, so it wasn’t until past the midpoint of the regular season that he was even back on the field. Blocking TE Dion Sims was also injured, not a real fit for the scheme and was waived earlier this offseason. Braunecker is mainly a special teams player who is still raw when it comes to being an important part of the offense.
When we look at Kelce and Ertz, we see two of the best "move" tight ends in all of football. Burton is a very good NFL player, but he isn’t in the same category as far as talent when compared to those two.
Ertz was a second-round pick, and Kelce went in the third round, while Burton was an undrafted free agent entering the league. I’m not taking anything away from Burton — a great fit for the Bears offense and poised to improve within it in 2019 — but he isn’t and probably never will be a perennial Pro Bowl tight end.
Simply put, the Bears need more talent at the position. I felt during training camp last year that Shaheen was going to have a big second season, but the injury came just as he was starting to come on and set him back. Whether he is the answer to match with Burton remains to be seen. Especially because he was a second-round pick in 2017, the Bears would love for him to become a key part of the offense.
Reality is that to make sure the Bears get better at the position, they need to acquire more talented players to compete. With the first phase of free agency over, the Bears aren’t going to answer their tight end questions there, so it has to be in the draft.
What makes matters difficult: With no first- or second-round draft picks this year, the earliest the Bears likely can look for their next tight end will be in the third or fourth round. If the Bears can sign a quality outside linebacker in free agency to be their key OLB3, running back and tight end will be two of their biggest needs in the draft.
The TE class is very good this year, with quality at the top of the board and depth throughout the draft. How the players come off the board remains to be seen because each team looks for different qualities and traits for the position. Seldom do we see a player like Kelce available in the third round. In Kelce's case, character concerns (mostly immaturity) dropped easily a first-round talent on many boards. To say the least, the Chiefs got lucky.
This year, there are two standouts at the position — and both come from the same school. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant from Iowa could very well be first-round picks. The next player to come off the board should be Alabama’s Irv Smith, who should be a solid second-round pick. After that it will be how the different clubs rank the players.
When I was putting together the Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide, I had Stanford’s Kaden Smith as the No. 2 tight end. His tape is outstanding, showing his ability to block and be a very good receiver. But Smith had a terrible combine, and unless he makes up for it at the Stanford pro day, he probably won’t go until the fourth round. What was Smith’s problem? Speed. I felt he played like a guy who could run 4.70, but he timed 4.92 in Indy. His agility drill times were excellent, so he is really the proverbial “quicker than fast” kind of player. Even if he runs 4.80 at the Stanford pro day, he won’t go as early as I initially thought.
The prospect coming on fast of late is San Diego State’s Kahale Warring. A junior entry who was late announcing, Warring wasn't in the mag, but I have since written up a player who could go as early as the second and no worse than the third round. He ran 4.67 and jumped out of the building, so he could very well be the fourth tight end selected.
What is realistic for the Bears? As I already mentioned, Kaden Smith should be available, but do the Bears want a 4.9 tight end? Another prospect I like is Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, a very good receiver who needs to improve his blocking skills but ran 4.75 and plays even faster.
A player the Bears might be able to get in the fourth or even fifth round is Utah State’s Dax Raymond. Raymond is fast (4.73) and athletic, and can play inside at the "Y" or be flexed out. He is a bit older (24) because he went on a Mormon Mission, but that also makes him very mature.
A potential sleeper for the Bears is LSU’s Foster Moreau. He was used primarily as a blocker at LSU but tested much better than expected at the combine. He ran a fast 4.66 and showed excellent overall athleticism with the other timed drills. He looked like a late-round pick on tape because he wasn’t used that often as a receiver (22 catches), but as he showed in Indy, he can be a receiving threat in the right offense.
Even though the Bears won’t be picking until the third round, they could very well get quality players at two positions of need (RB, TE) who can come in and contribute. The strengths of this year’s draft could play into the Bears hand.