After finishing dead last in the NFL last season in production at the tight end position with a combined 46 catches for 416 yards and just two touchdowns from six different players including J.P. Holtz, Jesper Horsted, Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker and Eric Saubert, the Bears made upgrading the talent there a top priority this offseason.
The additions of five-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham, Demetrius Harris and top draft pick Cole Kmet to the tight end room created an overflow crowd of as many as 10 at times, and the number remains at eight now after the release Thursday of Braunecker after four seasons as a Bear.
There is no doubt the final roster will include Graham, Harris and Kmet and the remaining drama centers around whether or not Graham can rekindle past glory, how quickly Kmet can become a factor, whether the team will carry four or five tight ends and whom among Shaheen, Holtz and Horsted will claim the final one or two roster spots.
New tight ends coach Clancy Barone sees a key role for Harris because he can help in so many ways.
“The fact that he knows this offense, he was brought up in this offense, and there's some times where I've actually asked him, 'Back when you were with the Chiefs, how'd you guys do this,'" Barone said. “I see him as being a guy that can kind of be a jack of all trades for us.”
Harris can play any of the tight end spots, but head coach Matt Nagy views him as a ‘Y,’ the inline blocking and 60-minute spot, more than a U or move tight end even though Harris while 6-7 is only 230 pounds.
Graham believes that even at 33 years old he can return to his past All-Pro form.
His blocking is little more than a rumor, but he is one of the best receiving tight ends in league history.
“Obviously, I am, for me, I’m still fast. I still have the ability to make big plays," Graham said. "I think, for me, in my career I’ve up until last year, I’ve never really I guess failed in that. It was a tough pill to swallow, it was the first time I lost my job.
“But for me, it’s lit a fire. I know what player I am and I know what I can do. And after being 10 years in, I’ve only missed six games. So, for me, this was a great opportunity to prove myself. I’ve always said, if I didn’t think I had the ability to dominate this league then I wouldn’t play anymore.”
Kmet is a developmental project this year, but Barone loves the clay he’s been given to work with.
“He’s a big guy, he has great length. He’s got good speed. I mean, 4.70, that is no slouch for a big guy like that," Barone said. “But I look at him and he’s got great body control, and he goes up and makes hard catches look routine.
“I see him as a blocker, a guy who is certainly willing. And I think blocking, for a tight end, it’s being willing and it’s a mindset. I see a very high ceiling for Cole Kmet.”
With so many options to choose from it’s hard to see Horsted and Holtz not at least ending up on the practice squad if they don’t claim a roster spot, but the biggest unknown has to be Shaheen.
I would have bet he’d be gone until Braunecker was released and after Barone told us this a few weeks back.
“Here's a guy I absolutely loved when he was in college. I thought a fantastic prospect," Barone said. “I mean the guy is physical. Everything about him, his height, his length, everything about the guy is what you want.
“I've never had a chance to coach him yet, but I would not say any more than just Adam is a guy I think has a very, very bright future, and I've got plans for him to do things in our offense.”
While it’s been an awfully long time, tight end could prove to be a real strength in Nagy’s offense this year if Graham has anything left and Kmet can be a quick study.