Remember when Bradley Sowell caught the game-clinching touchdown in the Bears’ signature victory over the Rams last December? It was vintage Matt Nagy trickery called “Santa’s Sleigh,” with Sowell one of 10 Bears linemen on the field for the goal-line score and game’s only touchdown.
Nagy was very impressed with the “complete thumbs catch,” Sowell’s first since his 2008 freshman season at Ole Miss, but it wasn’t the impetus for the offseason transition from swing tackle to tight end. The position switch does entail Sowell shedding approximately 35 pounds, however, perhaps necessitating his next NFL touchdown catch carrying a different moniker.
“I’m just really hungry,” Sowell told PFW last week of the trick to losing the first 20 pounds, to get down around 293. His goal is to get to “280 or a little under that.”
And the Bears’ goal in moving Sowell, who logged 24 starts among his 100 appearances mostly as a reserve offensive lineman over his first seven seasons, including the past two in Chicago, is improving the depth at one of their least settled spots. Sowell ultimately could challenge 2017 second-rounder Adam Shaheen for snaps at the “Y” position — if his T-TE transition is smoother than Shaheen’s from Ashland University to the NFL.
“Each small step that he makes is progress,” TE coach Frank Gilbride explained of Sowell, who has made a few impressive catches but also fought the ball a bit during the first two OTAs open to reporters. “And there’s going to be setbacks. As long as we continue to make small steps with his learning and then his understanding and execution, that’s progress.”
And much like the Bears rarely ask starting “move” TE Trey Burton to grapple in-line, their expectations for Sowell will be formed by what he proves in practice are his strengths and weaknesses in a new and evolving role.
“What we need to do is see what he can be, what he can develop into, and if there are places where he’s limited, he probably won’t be executing those in the season,” Gilbride said. “And that’s fine. As long as he can execute the things that we need him to execute at the position.”
Read: The Bears would love it if Sowell proves to be a formidable enough receiving threat to make his main priority helping in the run game and in pass pro as a blocker, but he also can be worked into passing patterns and give defenses another potential conflict to consider.
After all, the Bears’ conflict with Shaheen remains his availability — or lack thereof. Gilbride said the Bears like where Shaheen is at right now, but it “takes Shaheen a while” to develop the right practice mindset where he can go full tilt without reservations regarding his durability after back-to-back injury-shortened seasons.
The Bears only have so much time in a season with real Super Bowl aspirations and with Shaheen entering the penultimate year of his rookie contract. Their limited draft capital in April didn’t jibe with adding a TE reinforcement — though Ryan Pace just might have his latest undrafted gem in talented but raw Dax Raymond.
Meantime, consider Sowell a smart hedge for Shaheen, who remains one of the Bears’ bigger riddles. It’s not something the team decided overnight. Nagy first approached Sowell late last season, and the veteran said it’s something that had also been on his mind.
“It’s something that I want to do, too,” said Sowell, who turns 30 on Thursday. “It’s sort of like a dream come true, getting out there and having a whole different practice. So it’s been cool.”