If the broad expectation for Adam Shaheen on July 26, when the Bears reported to training camp in Bourbonnais, was that he would be mostly deployed as a red zone threat and catch a handful of touchdowns in his rookie year…is it fair to say he’s met that expectation?
With three games remaining in the 2017 season, Shaheen has 12 catches on 14 targets for 127 yards with three touchdowns. He may not have the volume of receptions and yards to match how high the Bears drafted him in April, but he has proven to be difficult to cover in the end zone.
There’s more to it than the numbers — while Zach Miller and Dion Sims were healthy in the first half of the season, Shaheen was primarily used as a blocking tight end (50 of his 100 snaps in the Bears’ first eight games were in three-tight-end sets, for example). And he had some missteps as a run blocker after Miller’s injury, like this one against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But statistically, Shaheen’s numbers stack up somewhat favorably to those of recent rookie tight ends.
There have been 144 tight ends to play as rookies in the last 10 years. Of those, only 24 (17 percent) have caught at least three touchdowns. Among those 24 tight ends, Shaheen currently has the highest catch percentage (85.7 percent) and the sixth highest average yards per target (9.07), though those are perhaps skewed by a small sample size (14 targets).
With three games to go, let’s say Shaheen catches one more touchdown and eight more passes (that may be a conservative estimate, given how well he played against Cincinnati). But that would give Shaheen 20 receptions and four touchdowns; only 12 rookie tight ends have hit those benchmarks in the last decade.
Comparatively, in the last 10 years, there have been 24 second-year tight ends to have at least 20 receptions and at least four touchdowns. The players to hit those marks in each of their first two seasons: Mychal Rivera, Aaron Hernandez, Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Gresham, Jimmy Graham and John Carlson. For the most part, that's an impressive list.
It’s still too early to tell what direction Shaheen’s career is taking. Even as he wasn’t doing much of anything in the first half of 2017 — he only was targeted twice — it was always too soon to label him a “bust” given the rarity of tight ends making a significant impact in their rookie seasons.
“So much of it is the blocking,” coach John Fox said why the adjustment to the NFL takes time for a tight end. “In this league, a lot of 4-3 teams, it’s a big defensive end, not some smallish linebacker type. So the blocking element, they’re like an offensive tackle. Technique-wise, especially when they’re 250 to 260, blocking a guy that’s real athletic, maybe at that weight or more, can be problematic.
“In the NFL the tight ends are involved a little bit more in protection, so there’s pass protection things—how you fit, where your help is—aside from the route running and the hot reads and all the stuff … I think NFL defenses are pretty complex as far as the things that they do. You have third-down defenses, you have first and second down defenses. There’s just a lot to learn for a college guy coming into the NFL.”
The best-case for the Bears is Shaheen will exit 2017 with a solid foundation on which to build in his second year in the league. We've seen signs that could be the case both as a run blocker and pass catcher, and it'll be interesting to see if he continues progressing over these final three games.