INDIANAPOLIS — The Bears currently are projected to have the NFL’s third-highest cap commitment next season for their TE corps that was easily the league’s least productive in 2019, in excess of $13.8 million, according to spotrac.
And after getting an early start at bolstering the position with the shrewd signing of ex-Chief Demetrius Harris last week shortly following his release from Cleveland, it’s possible the Bears turn their attention toward the more affordable avenue of the draft.
Bears brass gushed Tuesday about Harris, the 29-year-old former Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball player whom Ryan Pace said “we’ve talked about a lot since [Matt] Nagy got here,” and has the skillset to “flourish in the scheme” at the “Y” position where former second-round pick Adam Shaheen has flopped.
Could a position devoid of a player last year with 100 receiving yards or multiple touchdowns on the season be improved enough with a healthy Trey Burton returning alongside Harris to play the “move” and "inline" roles, respectively?
Pace said Tuesday that the outlook is “positive” on Burton after he underwent hip surgery — following sports hernia surgery in the 2019 offseason — that the Bears hope “finally” fixes the groin issue that’s lingered since he was a late scratch from the wild-card defeat more than 13 months ago and rendered him a nonfactor last year.
The Bears also have other intriguing “U,” or “Zebra” TE prospects already on the roster, beginning with Jesper Horsted, who gained valuable experience as an undrafted rookie converting to tight end from Princeton’s all-time leading wide receiver.
Interestingly, Nagy’s final response in his 15-minute press conference Tuesday began by pointing out that “availability” was issue No. 1 with the Bears tight ends last season and ended with him reaffirming the need to get much-improved production, but not necessarily personnel, at a vital position in his offense and most NFL offenses next season. In between, Nagy praised Harris’ rounded game and preexisting knowledge of the scheme.
This isn’t a banner year to draft tight ends — a position historically accompanied with a steep learning curve — but there’s definitely a variety of talented prospects with long-term upside and a few perhaps with plug-and-play potential.
The top latter prospect, former St. Viator High and Notre Dame star Cole Kmet, measured in this week at 6-6 and 262 pounds and considers himself “a true Y.” Seam stretching is his strength, he said, and his hope is to break 4.7 in the 40-yard dash. For comparison, Burton is a true “U,” who clocked a 4.62-second 40 at 6-2 and 224 during his combine in 2014.
“I think it’s my ability to stretch the field, get open and win one-on-one matchups,” Kmet said of his play style. “What I really have to work on is my blocking technique, my hands. That’s something I’m still trying to improve on today.”
Kmet, a Bears fan growing up whose dad Frank briefly played in Chicago following his standout career as a D-lineman at Purdue, is a likely second- or at worst third-round prospect. So if the Bears have interest — and it’d be mutual with Kmet calling it potentially “a great opportunity” — they must be prepared to select him some time on Day 2, where they hold pick Nos. 43 and 50 in Round 2 but nothing in Round 3.
Harrison Bryant, who won the John Mackey Award for being the nation's top tight end last season, played offensive tackle until his senior year of high school. Though he's smaller than Kmet, at 6-5 and 243 pounds, he's both a prolific receiver and determined, effective blocker. And it's worth noting the Bears scouted Florida Atlantic hard last year, eventually selecting RB Kerrith Whyte in Round 7.
“It was a cool moment to achieve that at FAU, the first postseason award, so all my teammates and everyone there was happy for me,” said Harrison Bryant of winning the Mackey trophy.
Bryant is another name we’d expect to hear at some point on Day 2 of the draft.
We’re guessing Bears fans might be more comfortable with Kmet or Bryant — either Bryant, if we include Washington’s Hunter, a slightly bigger version of Burton — than another ascending potential Day 2 TE prospect, University of Dayton’s Adam Trautman.
But they should know that the comparisons to Shaheen really end at their first name and small-school Ohio origin. Trautman, like Harrison Bryant, turned heads at the Senior Bowl, flashing the actual functional strength and athleticism vs. the big boys that’s yet to appear in Chicago’s 2017 second-rounder on the brink of bust status.
"The Senior Bowl was huge for me,” Trautman said. “I've always wanted an opportunity to go against kids with the Alabama stickers on their helmet, the Ohio State, Michigan. I never really waver in my confidence, but to go out there and be able to move people off the ball like I did from those type of schools, get separation like I did at my level — I just showed that it was a seamless transition for me."
Seamless transitions aren't new to Trautman, who arrived at Dayton a quarterback and stunned his coaches when he suggested the move to tight end for his redshirt freshman season.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Pace might have the appetite for another project following the high-profile failed Shaheen experiment. Trautman is dripping with intrigue, but the potential ridicule Pace would be inviting by selecting him is immense.
If Day 3 is the more likely time for the Bears to add to the position, Stanford’s Colby Parkinson, Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam and LSU’s Stephen Sullivan are potential mismatch threats in the red and intermediate areas. They all profile clearly as pass-catching tight ends over blockers, but if they show the want-to in the latter, that might not be an issue for Nagy.
“We like looking for a guy with mismatches. That’s the word that everybody uses with that “U” tight end. But having the ability to do some blocking as well. So that’s a point of emphasis for us.”
Remember, the Bears emphasized the placekicker position last spring, vowing to travail every avenue for answers to their high-priced Cody Parkey problem that they now feel appears solved with Eddy Pineiro.
The Bears’ quest for a lot more bang for their buck at tight end is underway, and it should be every bit as thorough.