Keep it tight, keep it light: Tight end a loose end for the Bears
By: Robert Zeglinski
There was one clear message to derive from Super Bowl LIV. For a spectating outsider like the Bears, it was simple. Overall qualities of the Chiefs or 49ers rosters had nothing to do with it, as having a good team is already a prerequisite for playing deep into winter. Patrick Mahomes’ individual resilience, then brilliance, had no part to play. The steady hands of Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan, great as they were and are, also paled in comparison to Chicago.
Where this championship dream was made was out with players a little offset of the offensive line, their hand in the dirt, or sometimes split out.
Thanks to the profitable exploits of superstars of Travis Kelce and George Kittle, tight end was a prevailing theme. A theme the Bears will have to follow word for word, block after block, catch after catch. Symbolism and overt results prevailing every step of the way (or every instance Kelce or Kittle bailed their teammates out, for better or worse).
A premier offense in the modern day NFL cannot hum without a playmaker at the “Y” position. Yes, a quarterback comes first, and always will. How a head coach maximizes the signal caller is also an undeniable focus. But the tight end is the preeminent safety valve any self-respecting franchise can lean on in a pinch. Someone who controls the middle of the field with a mix of sheer size and athleticism no other player on the field can match. A hybrid physical specimen who understands how to set the tone on a bone-crunching block, a dynamic catch downfield, or a secure play in space. The tight end, for abundance of terms, is the personification of a bread and butter player; the foundation of any valuable football meal, and of which is impossible to be fully satiated by.
In hindsight, it’s no coincidence the Bears’ offense has been surprising to middling during Matt Nagy’s first two seasons: They not only haven’t had the quarterback, a viable and justifiable tight end hasn’t entered their line of sight.
Trey Burton could have been an answer. Once a high-priced free agent acquisition, the Reid-tree acolyte had both the experience and the natural salvo of talent to thrive in a Bears’ offense tailor-made for his sleek skill-set. Success in Philadelphia was easy to translate when Burton was in one piece. 54 receptions for the Philly Army Knife in 2018 is a testament to what he’s capable of. But seldom does a player’s situation go exactly according to plan for as long as anyone involved would prefer. With Burton, after a prevailing groin injury rendered him to an ineffectual 14 receptions in his second season in Chicago, his plan has already been crumpled up. It’s already been tossed into the recycling bin. The only question is whether the bin is worth setting ablaze out of frustration.
A fall from grace could have been expected on Burton’s part. Undervalued veterans do occasionally falter, of course. Injuries are difficult to predict. Someone such as Adam Shaheen, the placid, poor man’s Rob Gronkowski to a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski, failing so spectacularly was not an ideal. It was the outright capitulation of everything the Bears believed they possessed in their hulking tight ends.
Once a Division II prodigy, the biggest imprint Shaheen has managed to make in his three-year career is set a new bar of disappointment with each successive season. It hasn’t been a signature catch, save for throwaway lobs at the goal line any trained monkey could make a play on. It hasn’t been a block in space or at the line of scrimmage, an ability the 270-pound supposed freak of nature makes look anything but routine.
No. None of that.
13 starts out of a possible 48 games has defined Shaheen’s incapacity to launch. Softness after the catch, on the rare occasion he did make a meaningful reception, pales by comparison. Injury and a flail will be written across his metaphorical lapel whenever the Bears do elect to move on from a gifted tight end because he could never quite get “it.”
Answers are sparse at tight end at a time when they are needed most. While men such as Kelce and Kittle stand out as rightful templates to follow, the NFL has not had such a dearth of talent at the position since the forward pass was invented.
That makes the prospect of acquiring 25-year-old free agents such as the Chargers’ Hunter Henry or Falcons’ Austin Hooper precarious; When a tight end isn’t a true difference maker, when they’re allowed to enter the open market, their value is and does deserve to be called into question. If there are two standard bearers at the top, and everyone else is middling or still growing or in no man’s land, reinvesting in tight end is boom or bust.
The same scenario unfortunately paints itself in the draft for the Bears. Already at a handicap without a first-round selection, the pickings quickly get slim by the time Chicago is on the board in the second round. LSU’s Thaddeus Moss, progeny of his legendary father Randy, is the only player who makes the slightest bit of sense to insert into an offense. And the Bears might not be able to afford to wait to develop any other young talent at such an important position otherwise.
Chicago has its hands full this spring. Staying at .500 won’t be tolerated for another season. Sitting on the sideline with an opportunity to improve will be met with derision and consternation. If the Bears’ offense deigns to find a playmaker at tight end, in addition to any competence at quarterback, then they will be stuck grinding their wheels. Messages from stars only go so far.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.