Bears NFL Draft Preview: Solving the tight end problem

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Solving the tight end problem Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2015 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

Few Bears position areas are as open to question. The tumult surrounding Martellus Bennett came to an end with the Bears dealing the tight end to the New England Patriots for a fourth-round draft choice. But while the deal concluded a choppy Chicago stint for Bennett, it didn’t resolve the Bears’ situation at tight end, one that appeared settled when the Bears signed Bennett for $20 million over four years in 2013. Bennett caught 90 passes in 2014, held out during the 2015 offseason, came back to finish behind only Alshon Jeffery with 53 receptions despite playing just 11 games, finishing the season on IR.

The Bears did re-sign Zach Miller, whose ascension emergence through the 2015 season appeared to be one source of irritation for Bennett because of the shift of focus away from Bennett. Miller finished with a career-best 34 catches, but continued his dubious record of never playing a full 16-game season as he missed the finale with a toe injury.

The loss of Bennett to the offense cannot be overstated. He was a strong in-line blocker as well as a 6-foot-6 target. The Bears have Miller, Rob Housler and Khari Lee, each with individual strengths, but none possessed of the complete skill set that Bennett brought to the position.

Bears draft priority: High

Whether the 2016 draft can provide a straight-up replacement for Bennett is a concern. The Bears made a run at New Orleans tight end Josh Hill but were thwarted when the Saints matched their offer sheet.

“It’s ‘OK,’” said GM Ryan Pace, with the Saints when they landed Hill as a 2013 undrafted free agent, used a 2010 third-rounder on Jimmy Graham and invested a 2002 sixth-rounder on John Gilmore, who spent six years with the Bears. The problem is partly the nature of the college game.

“The tight end, the way offenses are now in college, the tight end is becoming harder to evaluate,” Pace said. “A lot of the time those guys are spread out so you don’t get to see them in-line and blocking as much. So I’d say it’s ‘OK.’”

Not the kind of assessment that says the Bears, or anyone else, will find definitive answers at the position this draft. It will not be the first time.

No tight ends were chosen in the 2015 first round. One (Eric Ebron, 10th) went in the 2014 round and one (Tyler Eifert ,21st) the year before. None are expected to go that early this draft.

Keep an eye on ...

Jerell Adams, South Carolina: Played four years at Alshon Jeffery’s alma mater, 1 TD every 9.4 rec. “Jerell Adams is the most underrated tight end in this class,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

Hunter Henry, Arkansas: Consistent producer in 3 college seasons (116 rec.) with size (6-4, 255). May be best available from a poor crop.

Austin Hooper, Stanford: Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener establish that Cardinal TE’s can work at the next level. Hooper may be a steal in the mid rounds.

Dan Vitale, Northwestern: Listed as a fullback but has  been productive as a receiver, in the Ryan Wetnight mold. Excellent strength if not size (6-0, 240).

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.