Bears TE situation reaching crisis point, leaving offense virtually short-handed

John Mullin

While attention has focused on troubles with the offensive line in the search for what's wrong with the Bears offense, a situation elsewhere is approaching crisis proportions, one with implications in all phases of an offense struggling to find an identity, not just yards and points.

Tight end.

Legendary offense architect Bill Walsh wrote and often said that the tight-end position was a little-understood but hugely significant key to his West Coast concepts, ideally a player who was a built-in mismatch working the seams of a defense and a force blocking in the run game.

"They move around and do a lot of different things," said coach Matt Nagy. "So it gives you an advantage to be able to get, ‘what defense are they going to play in? Are they going to play sub? Are they going to play base?' That's where the cat-and-mouse part comes in as coaches every week."

For the 2019 Bears, tight end has been more mouse than cat, however.

For a variety of reasons, the tight end position – or rather, "positions," since the Bears have used roster spots on five different ones through just five games already – has become a sinkhole. The absence of production and impact is approaching the levels from the days when Mike Martz ruled as offensive coordinator and relegated the position to irrelevance, getting Greg Olsen out of town and ushering in Brandon Manumaleuna in.

But while Walsh descendants Sean McVay in Los Angeles, Philadelphia's Doug Pederson (Zach Ertz) and Andy Reid in Kansas City (Travis Kelce) continue to operate top-10 offenses with tight-end impact, the offense of Matt Nagy has gotten next to nothing approaching that despite the organization having invested draft and financial capital and roster spots in the position.

None of the five tight ends who've cycled through this season has more than Trey Burton's 11 receptions. No tight end has delivered run or pass blocking; quite the opposite in fact.

It is a new problem for Nagy, who saw Philadelphia tight ends average nearly 60 receptions and a half-dozen TD's per season over his last four years as an Eagles assistant under Reid. In Kansas City, the offense of which Nagy was a part averaged more than 96 tight-end receptions over Nagy's final four seasons there.

Far behind the NFL curve

Whether the problems have been talent, injuries (offseason and in-season), quarterback change or a combination, the Bears are effectively playing a man short on offense with their tight end crisis.

Ten NFL tight ends have by themselves currently as many or more receptions as the Bears five tight ends combined (22).

Austin Hooper  Falcons    42

Darren Waller  Raiders    37

Mark Andrews Ravens    34

Zach Ertz          Phila.        33

Evan Engram   Giants       33

Travis Kelce     Chiefs       32

George Kittle    49ers        31

Will Dissly         Seahawks        23

Jason Witten    Cowboys 22

Greg Olsen       Panthers  22

Twenty-nine tight ends have as many or more receptions as Burton. Two teams (Houston, Tampa Bay) have two tight ends with more than Burton's 11. The Baltimore Ravens, including Andrews, have three.

Delanie Walker Titans      21

Gerald Everett Rams        20

Tyler Higbee    Rams        16

Jared Cook      Saints       15

Darren Fells     Texans     15

Tyler Eifert        Bengals   15

TJ Hockenson Lions        15

Jimmy Graham Packers  14

Vance McDonald Steelers 14

Jack Doyle       Colts         14

James O'Shaughnessy Jaguars 14

Noah Fant        Broncos   14

O.J. Howard     Bucs 13

Geoff Swaim    Jaguars    13

Jordan Akins    Texans     13

Hayden Hurst   Ravens    13

Cameron Brate Bucs        12

Hunter Henry   Chargers  12

Nick Boyle        Ravens    11

Bears

Trey Burton               11

Adam Shaheen        7

Ben Braunecker       2

J.P. Holtz                   2

Bradley Sowell 0      

Burton's $8 million average annual cost ranks eighth among tight ends, according to numbers compiled by Overthecap.com and Sportrac.com.

Burton was fourth among Bears with 54 receptions last season, six for touchdowns. But he was inactive for the playoff loss because of a reported groin strain, a sports-hernia injury that required offseason surgery. He suffered a second, unrelated groin injury early this season.

Shaheen was set back by injuries annually (chest in 2017, foot/ankle in 2018, back in 2019) but is now approaching "bust" status, a second-round draft choice who has played more than half the snaps only once in his 24-game, three-year career.

Braunecker has been a four-phase special teams player. Holtz was a free-agent pickup who has seen spot duty. Sowell, a converted tackle, has played 11 total snaps in what to this point has been a failed position change.

For the Chicago offense, no tight end has secured the position and the offense has suffered for it.

"It's a very important position," Nagy insisted, "because in our offense, Trey [Burton], for example, that's our ‘adjustor.' It's not just the Saints or anybody else. If you go ‘Tiger,' or ‘12' (one back, two tight ends) personnel, are [the defenses] going to go base or nickel? So that's where that piece comes in. With Trey, he's able to do well vs. man and well vs. zone so it just helps us out."

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Bears TE situation reaching crisis point, leaving offense virtually short-handed originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago