Earth, Wind, & Fire: How the Bears’ tight ends became the focal point of a diverse offense
By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – In 2017, the Bears targeted their tight ends a total of 78 times. That mark was good enough to have 11 individual NFL tight ends eclipse it by themselves. In 2017, the Bears forgot and or egregiously elected not to see their tight ends as downfield weapons. The most versatile and uniquely physically built talents? Glorified decoys, nothing more.
In 2018, with the highest investment of resources into the position in the league, tight end is the Alpha and Omega of the Bears offense. Aside from Mitchell Trubisky, of course.
Each of high profile 2018 free agent signing Trey Burton, 2017 second round draft pick Adam Shaheen, and 2017 big money free agent addition Dion Sims have their own distinct part to play in what could become one of the most explosive offenses in football. Each with their own personality, motivations, and skill sets.
On paper, the Bears haven’t had this much talent across the board in their tight end room, since, well … ever. Given Matt Nagy’s idiosyncratic offensive background that repeatedly featured tight ends with the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles: each of Burton, Shaheen, and Sims’ packages will have immense value in Chicago.
New Bears tight end coach Kevin Gilbride is no stranger to this group’s potential and how his coaching style meshes with them, “I’ve adapted them to a little bit.” That adaptation is rooted in each tight end bringing something completely different to the table, and out of necessity.
This is the guide of what to expect from the Bears’ new three-headed offensive monster. This is a story about the Bears’ most important and diverse offensive skill position morphing into a collective and dynamic catalyst.
Everywhere he goes, Trey Burton can’t avoid being reminded about the “Philly Special.” From Twitter, signs at training camp, to questions about his versatility, his career highlight won’t soon be deneuralyzed, Men In Black style. But it’s not as if Burton wants to forget the fateful night he threw the signature touchdown of Super Bowl LII, cementing a legendary Eagles’ Super Bowl win. The “Philly Special” is one of the most famous plays in NFL history now. He wants to channel the energy and memory of it, and create another spectacular, if not at all dissimilar moment with the Bears.
And this time, Burton wants to do it as more of a centerpiece with another team and quarterback like Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz that he believed in. Which is why he signed with the Bears this March in the first place: he saw Trubisky’s potential. He saw where the Bears were headed, and he hopped on the bandwagon.
“He’s special,” said a beaming Burton of Trubisky in an NFL Network spot in March.”He fits right in the category with Carson (Wentz) in the way he prepares, his physical attributes on the field, his athleticism.”
The Bears are building their franchise around the promising Trubisky. They’re betting on Burton being one of Trubisky’s best friends. It helps that he already has built such a chemistry with the young quarterback. That he holds him in such high esteem. And that Burton’s someone oh so clearly to lean on, since he’s grasped every minute detail of a complicated offense rapidly.
This year’s training camp has been the ideal reminder of what Burton offers to his new team. It’s not quite the same as making game impact. But how quickly Burton’s ingratiated himself to his Chicago teammates is remarkable to say the least.
Same face, new place, same impact.
“It’s very good so far. I think he and Mitchell (Trubisky) are getting on the same page,” Gilbride admitted of Burton’s early initiation. “We’re asking him to do a lot, and a lot of different techniques within the routes. It’s going well so far, it’s on the proper course. The proper progression course.”
That progression course is Burton becoming the Bears’ de-facto No. 1 tight end: a hat he never wore in Philadelphia playing behind star Zach Ertz. The Bears and Gilbride are heaping a lot onto Burton’s plate and he’s digesting it without a hiccup.
Of course, it helps when Burton’s already essentially been in this Bears offensive scheme before. That’s what allows him to step in like one of the top guys right away.
“I think the terminology is different, that’s always gonna be the case in certain areas,” Gilbride noted. “We call certain routes and plays, but for the most part he’s already done most of what we’re asking him to do. Whether in college or in Philly.”
Having that innate comfort for Burton in his responsibilities with the Bears is crucial, because that makes his skill set easier to translate to Chicago. It makes his receiving ability, versatility, and toughness more easily applicable. It’s talent and knowledge that guys like Eddie Jackson, someone who has often had to directly defend Burton in practice, has noticed.
“He’s very fluid with his route running. He’s not like a normal tight end,” Jackson said, praising Burton. “He’s such a weapon in the passing game.”
What always stands out about Burton as a receiver is how easy he makes everything look. How every step he takes in his routes look effortless. Where he’s seemingly never strained to make a difficult play on the ball. He’s always calm and collected. Amidst all this, he has a permafrost-like smile on his face to boot.
This calm demeanor comes from Burton’s experience as a former undrafted free agent out of Florida. As someone who had to work his way up a roster through gritty special teams play to start and earned everything by getting his hands dirty. Burton is calm and collected as he’s almost seen it all. The 26-year-old rising star has been through the gauntlet. It’s that steady hand he’s trying to pass onto his less-versed Bears teammates such as Shaheen.
“I think everybody, especially on the offensive side, knows that they can come to me,” Burton mused of his leadership.
The Bears are fortunate to have a man that’s been through so much doubt who knows he’s wearing the other shoes now. You can’t put a reasonable price on that kind of resource.
“I know one thing that I did that really helped me a lot was glue myself to a veteran guy,” Burton said of his developmental process. “That was the easiest thing for me to do to evolve my game and take it to the next level.”
Take it to the next level he has.
When the Bears drafted him last April, many decried the selection as a raw reach. A reach of a 6-foot-7, 269 pound freak who spent his time metaphorically and literally dunking on inferior athletes at the NCAA Division II level. That, though, was a shortsighted interpretation of what Adam Shaheen is capable of with the Bears.
Shaheen was always set to have a stiff initial learning curve given the level of competition he faced as a collegiate player. The jump from that level of the game to grown, powerful men is considerable. Yet the player he was to morph into down the line was what Ryan Pace and his scouts were interested in. That evolution being one of the NFL’s most unstoppable red zone weapons and a matchup nightmare no matter who lines up across from him.
Based his second full off-season as a Bear, Shaheen is well on his way towards living up to the Bears’ original Cloud 9 prognostication of him. If anything, he might exceed their expectations. Never doubt the biggest, strongest, and fastest players on the field. That’s for sure.
“The kid has a lot of tools,” Matt Nagy’s terse description of Shaheen early in this camp.
“Adam has all of the gifts,” Burton says while uncovering Shaheen late in this camp. “Height, weight, ability to catch the ball. Ability to run routes and block. His game has evolved.”
Tools and gifts. Two words endlessly used to denote Shaheen’s natural talents. Two words that don’t do what he offers proper justice. To see Shaheen’s evolution in person is to truly believe.
From extending above Bears safeties like Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos in the end zone for scores, while they helplessly flail their arms to knock away the intended pass to no avail, to bullying Bears linebackers like Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan in coverage to create space on shorter routes, Shaheen is noticeably more confident by the day. He has veteran moves, a first for him, showing that he understands the little things it takes to thrive at his position.
Once the second-year Shaheen really gets his position down to the smallest details, watch out.
“He’s making strides in the right direction, there’s no doubt about it,” Gilbride says effusively of Shaheen. “In every area.”
What stands out about Gilbride’s praise of Shaheen is that he’s not only referring to his ability as a go up and get it receiver defenses can’t account for. Gilbride’s primary compliment is rooted in something Shaheen was oft-criticized for as a rookie: his blocking.
“What I’m referring to is his run blocking on the front side, his run blocking on the back side,” continued Gilbride on Shaheen. “His pass protection’s improving. And his route running has improved, but him making plays on the football is certainly improving.”
You can’t be a “Y” tight end if you can’t catch and block. You can’t get on the field if the coaches can’t rely on you in every facet. If Shaheen is going to make an impact for this Bears offense, of which he has the highest of expectations to do so, then he has to be capable of everything. So far, so good for the 23-year-old.
As for comparisons, everyone always wants to make them with Shaheen. Affectionately coined “Baby Gronk” for the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski last year, Shaheen is supposed to fit a specific mold of physical and mental dominance of his opponents.
Gilbride, however, sees those comparisons for Shaheen as irresponsible. Shaheen is his own unique player with his own personality and needs and wants. To compare him to anyone at the moment is a stretch. He carves his own path to glory, and he has to do it in a grounded way.
“Each tight end in the NFL is so different and unique. They all have different skill sets,” Gilbride maintains. “I’m not comfortable making a comparison to any of them really because Adam offers something else entirely.”
Who knows, maybe soon enough a future rookie tight end is drawing his irresponsible comparisons to Shaheen. That will be the best indicator of the gigantic man blazing trails.
Upside, upside, and more upside.
That was the main selling factor of Dion Sims when the Bears signed him to a three-year, $18 million dollar contract as a free agent last March. The 6-foot-4, 268 pounder had never been the go-to guy for the Dolphins, but the Bears saw a tight end waiting to be unleashed in a more sizable role. They saw a bruiser willing to punish the opposition and act as a comfortable safety valve.
That didn’t come into fruition.
In 2017, Sims caught just 26 passes for 256 yards and one touchdown for the Bears. Effectively, an afterthought in an already archaic passing game. As a blocker, his supposed strength, Sims struggled to get rolling and made it difficult to justify too much snaps for the veteran. Beyond a disappointing year for the 27-year-old looking to take advantage of fresh scenery with Chicago.
The disappointment was part of the reason many believed the Bears would part ways with Sims before his money for 2018 became guaranteed this spring. Chicago had signed Burton to as a foundational piece. Shaheen was the future at tight end. There simply was no more room for Sims to make an imprint.
Oh, how the tight end tables turned.
The Bears ended up retaining Sims’ services. And not just because of financial reasons (a $4.5 million dollar cap hit if cut). They legitimately valued his capacity as a downfield weapon and as a strong blocker. They think his 2017 season wasn’t remotely representative of the player he is. They might be right.
As the Bears’ No. 3 tight end, primarily a blocking specialist, their evaluation has bared out. Sims is going to help in Nagy’s offense, and it won’t be in small sample sizes. Know your role, and focus on where you excel. That’s what Sims does better than anyone. There’s nowhere Sims had to zero in on improvement this off-season because he understands his traits as a tight end. His coach reverberates the same belief.
Know your role and focus on where you excel.
“Nothing specifically. Meaning, it’s not one thing that he has to improve,” says Gilbride of Sims’ improvement. “It’s more of an understanding of the offense and doing the things we’re asking him to do within the play.”
“He knows his role, but how’s he going to get that accomplished? That’s where the technique and the fundamentals come into play.”
Sims knows he’s fallen down the Bears’ pecking order of tight ends. Burton and Shaheen are too talented not to give the majority of repetitions. But it’s not as if the Bears have phased Sims out. And it’s not as if he can’t use his football smarts to help Chicago’s most important skill position group.
“He (Sims) works hard. He works his butt off. Not just in knowing his play, but he really understands the concept of what’s happening around him,” says Gilbride of what to bear in mind with the big tight end. “He’s made strides in the right direction in that regard.”
Know your role and focus on where you excel. The embodiment of not only Sims, but an underrated and potentially special Bears tight end group of many faces. – R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.