Bears loose at tight end
Woeful lack of production at crucial position among prime offensive headaches
Of all the disappointments on offense for the Bears this season, the disappearance of the tight end is the most difficult to explain. The position has been overstocked with seven players, including two on the practice squad, for much of the year.
Other than wide receiver Allen Robinson, just about every facet of the Bears offense has been underwhelming. You don’t rank 27th in the league in scoring, averaging 18 points per game, with only one problem.
Trey Burton, who with an $8 million annual salary on his four-year contract is the eighth-highest-paid tight end in the NFL, was placed on injured reserve Saturday, likely ending his season. He has only 14 catches for 84 yards in eight games, suffering a groin injury a week before the opener and a calf injury Sunday against the Lions.
General manager Ryan Pace on Sept. 2 labeled the groin injury as “mild,” but it lingered and kept Burton from being 100% all season.
Adam Shaheen, a second-round pick in 2017, was a healthy scratch Sunday against the Lions and popped up on the injury report Thursday with a foot issue. He also will miss the Rams game.
Nagy last week cited attention to detail when discussing Shaheen’s status.
“Some of the mistakes continue to show up in situations when he’s been specifically taught how to do something,” tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said. “It’s not every detail, but it’s certain things we need him to do better.”
Ben Braunecker maximized his opportunity against the Lions with a lunging 18-yard touchdown reception, which figures to earn him more chances Sunday against the Rams. With Burton and Shaheen out, perhaps it’s a chance for Braunecker to step up.
But the question is: How have the Bears seemingly missed on the tight end position?
Burton was serviceable last season, catching 54 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns. He was steady, but those numbers aren’t what you would expect from one of the top-paid tight ends in the league. It was a projection to sign Burton and promote him to a starting role after he spent most of his four seasons with the Eagles as the No. 3 tight end.
The Bears projected incorrectly with Dion Sims in 2017 free agency. They viewed him as a very good blocking tight end with untapped athletic potential as a receiver and paid him $6 million per year — a high price for a player with his specialty. He was a good blocking tight end for them until concussions derailed him last season but never showed promise as a receiver.
The Bears projected that Shaheen could make the transition from Division II Ashland. His college tape was impressive, and they figured he would have been a higherprofile prospect if he were from a bigger program.
He has nine catches for 74 yards this season, and when a player keeps making mistakes in Year 3, that’s troubling.
So the offense has been forced to adjust with little production from the position. Tight ends have been targeted 44 times — 15% of the 293 attempts — with 28 catches for 223 yards and one touchdown, Braunecker’s score on a nice corner route.
Jesper Horsted, a converted wide receiver from Princeton, and Dax Raymond are rookies on the practice squad. Raymond is working as an in-line blocker. It’s possible one or both could be promoted to the 53-man roster before the end of the season. Any game action would give the Bears a chance to evaluate them with an eye toward 2020.
Burton figures to be in the mix next season, if for no other reason than $4 million of his $6.7 million base salary is guaranteed.
It’s not the biggest element that is ailing the offense, but the tight end is a big part of Nagy’s passing attack. And it simply hasn’t delivered.
It will be interesting to see how the Rams’ revamped secondary, with cornerback Jalen Ramsey added via trade last month, plays against Mitch Trubisky. The Bears quarterback struggled last season in the 15-6 home victory against the Rams in Week 14, completing 16 of 30 passes for 110 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
The Rams mixed things up and played zone coverage in the red zone, where Trubisky was 3 of 7 for 16 yards with a 2-yard touchdown pass to eligible offensive lineman Bradley Sowell. The Bears were 1for-3 on red-zone possessions.
“We were expecting a lot of man-to-man and they zoned us out,” receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “It was guaranteed, 100% man (in the red zone on the scouting report). Then it was flat-out zone, zone, zone, zone.
“The biggest thing now is, obviously we were really young at that time. Now we just prepare for everything. You take a picture of what they’re giving you — you’ve seen Cover-0, -1, -2, -3, -4 — so no matter what we (prepare for) during the week, let’s adapt to whatever they’re giving us or solidify that this is what we thought and this is what they’re doing.”
Jalen Ramsey, Rams CB
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Jalen Ramsey, 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, is in his fifth NFL season and preparing for his fourth game with the Rams after they acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Jaguars last month. The Rams traded two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to land the star cover corner. Ramsey has nine career interceptions, is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and was All-Pro in 2017.
“(Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips has shifted since they got him,” the scout said. “On third downs, they’re much more man-heavy with Ramsey. What that allows is Jalen to go on the No. 1 receiver and gives them an extra guy somewhere else. So that means they can rotate a safety and play two-man to the other side of the field. You can use that safety to cut crossers or you can bring pressure up front and get an extra guy in the box. I think that’s why they went out and got him. It was a huge price to get him, but they wanted a lockdown guy. In his first game, he played against Julio Jones and won a lot of battles. Julio caught two passes against him in true man coverage, a crosser and a fade route.
“He is extremely physical and real grabby, and if the refs let him play, he’s going to grab all day long. He wants to snug up to the hip of the wide receiver and be physical. He’s going to go after every single release. He wants to be in press man. He will play off in Cover-3 and quarters technique, which Wade plays a lot of, too, but when he plays man, (Ramsey is) up in press coverage and he’s going to use his physical traits. He’s got really good speed and he’s got excellent hand contact at the point of attack, and he’s long. He’s got long arms.
“I’d bet they will put him on Allen Robinson a ton. Last week, he was on JuJu Smith-Schuster and he shut him down pretty much. The Rams got him to take the No. 1 receiver from the other team. It’s not a case like New England where they use Stephon Gilmore versus the No. 2 and double the No. 1 receiver with bracket coverage. They put Ramsey on the No. 1. He will travel with the receiver (Robinson) in man situations because if you’re looking at the Bears, who else would he go against? Someone else is going to have to win matchups. And if Mitch (Trubisky) gets stuck, which he has done this season when he can’t find his first or second read and the ball automatically goes to Robinson, he better be careful this week with that.”
Trey Burton, failing to make a catch against the Saints, has been battling injuries and a lack of production at tight end.