By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Having three capable tight ends isn’t something the Bears are accustomed to. They’ve never had a three-headed Cerberus-like monster like they do now. Most NFL teams rarely have a second tight end they can lean on.
Under Matt Nagy, it’s clear the position is more of a focal point than ever.
On Thursday with the Bears returning from their first break of training camp, their tight ends were the beginning, middle, and end to a story of any offensive success.
To start practice, Mitchell Trubisky fired a quick out to Trey Burton who found space along the sideline for a nice gain. That was but one example of Burton morphing into Trubisky’s favorite safety blanket throughout. If the Bears need a play in a crucial moment to get the ball rolling, it’s going in Burton’s direction.
Later, Adam Shaheen was featured with multiple targets before the initial periods of practice were over. The young tight end had one of the best plays on the day when he made a leaping catch over the hands of a helpless DeAndre Houston-Carson. It was a nice pitch-and-catch between Trubisky, who was pressured, and Shaheen to make himself available.
And through the duration of practice, Dion Sims checked in periodically in goal line and red zone drills, gaining a lot of push up front.
This offense is built on the versatility of three uniquely different players with uniquely different skill sets. Burton, the all-around athlete. Shaheen, the physical freak and red zone weapon. And Sims, the blocking No. 3.
Burton didn’t neglect to mention his effusive praise of a tight end group on the rise.
“We each bring something different to the table,” said Burton. “It’s exciting to watch in meetings and take different things from them (Shaheen and Sims).”
In Burton’s case, it helps that he’s already essentially played in this Bears offense from his time with the Eagles. If there’s anyone that can get the tight ends most aptly involved, it’s Burton and his knowledge. He’s been an invaluable asset to Nagy on and off the field. 2018 has become the Bears’ Year Of The Tight End.
“When we’re in installs, I may ask Trey (Burton) a question, ‘is this how you did it in Philadelphia’,” said Nagy. “Trey knows this offense inside and out.”
Trubisky’s struggles continue, but he’s rebounding
Watch the first few team drills of practice on Thursday and you would’ve thought Trubisky had completely turned the corner from his highs and lows to start this Bourbonnais stint. The young quarterback was firing dart after dart to Burton, Tarik Cohen, and Allen Robinson and not missing any beats. Finally, the Bears offense had an edge over the savvy Bears defense.
That didn’t last.
As practice wore on, Trubisky’s dialed-in accuracy suffered. He began to sail more passes and force throws into coverage. He started to press and have miscommunications with his receivers again. On occasions when he had receivers open, like a play where Burton had no defender within 20 yards of him by the goal line, Trubisky dramatically underthrew the ball wasting the chance. And for the second time in as many days, he threw not one but two interceptions to Prince Amukamara.
There were occasional flashes, but they were few and far between. The Bears seemed to want to push Trubisky through this, as when it was time to practice two-minute drills, backups Chase Daniel and Tyler saw far less time than usual. Trubisky, for now anyway, doesn’t look like he’s comfortable in carrying this offense under Nagy. He’s certainly played like it too. The more time wears on with Trubisky looking erratic, the more concerning it’s going to get.
Nagy, ever the mentor attached to Trubisky’s hip, wouldn’t mince words about how his prodigy was coming along. It’s important to recognize that he’s not perfect and that he’ll make mistakes. It’s how Trubisky responds to his mistakes that determine whether he can get out of this malaise.
“Mitch had a couple of interceptions today and the best part about that was that the next play he came back with a completion,” said Nagy. “We’re still testing the waters and growing with that.”
If Trubisky can transcend beyond the baseline of an all-new offense, Nagy and company will have had everything gone to plan. Before the Bears get infinitely more nuanced in their schemes, they have to be eased in. Nagy’s practice model has exemplified that. It’s the only way to get Trubisky prepared: slowly.
“There’s zero game-planning going on in practice,” said Nagy of a basic shell of an offense. “When we get to the preseason, it’ll be different.”
If you think Trubisky isn’t going to get a ton of preseason repetitions, possibly even multiple series in next week’s Hall of Fame Game against the Baltimore Ravens, you’re sorely mistaken. He needs them, especially as the Bears turn the dial day by day.
Daniels building a rapport
Coming out of the 2018 Draft, Bears interior offensive lineman James Daniels was praised as simultaneously one of the most polished prospects with a tremendously high ceiling. The former Iowa standout was selected by Chicago for his versatility, athleticism, and ability to adapt quickly.
Thus far in camp, that evaluation has bared out with Daniels consistently getting the best of Bears defenders on Thursday. There’s much work to be done, but the 20-year-old is looking and playing like a seasoned veteran. Daniels has been so good, that actual veterans like Eric Kush have bounced off ideas and technique questions off the rookie. He’s as proficient a technician as they come.
“He (Kush) asks me for help a lot of times, technique-wise,” said Daniels of his relationship with Kush. “In run blocking and steps, I do things that Kush hasn’t really done before. He coaches me and I coach him.”
It should be staggering to hear a rookie as young as Daniels is so advanced that he’s assisting a five-year veteran like Kush in improving his game. And yet, when you remember the background that Daniels came from in arguably the best offensive line school in the country with Iowa, there’s nothing he isn’t capable of right away.
The rookie Daniels is getting a ton of snaps at both guard and center. He’s being thrown into the fire, and he’s coming out without scars. That isn’t by accident, and it’s because of his background. An Iowa legacy of following in the footsteps of trench greats like Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda means everything to him.
“If I do what I’m supposed to do, I’m going to be one of the names used to recruit future classes,” Daniels said. “It means a lot to be mentioned among those guys. It’s a driving force.”
Even still, for as far along as Daniels has grown, it’ll take time before he’s an elite NFL offensive lineman. His development is a process, and he already notices the stark difference in competition from college to the NFL. The first step to fixing a problem is recognizing it and adjusting on the fly. No problem whatsoever for the young buck.
“I would get away with a lot of things in college with bad technique, like overrunning things,” said Daniels. “But if I overrun here, I’m getting pushed back. If you give a defensive lineman something, they take it. Like that.” R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.