Adam Shaheen

As offseason program begins, Bears' offensive depth chart comes into focus

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USA Today

As offseason program begins, Bears' offensive depth chart comes into focus

The Bears’ offseason program begins Tuesday, with players allowed to report to Halas Hall for rehab, strength and conditioning work. Attendance is voluntary, and the first time the Bears’ non-strength/training coaching staff will be able to work with players will be during April 17-19’s voluntary veteran minicamp. 

But this week will be the first opportunity for Matt Nagy and his players to set the tone for the 2018 season, with OTAs and minicamps to follow over the next two months. So as the offseason program gets underway, here’s where the Bears’ depth chart stands, starting today with the offense:

Quarterback

1. Mitch Trubisky
2. Chase Daniel
3. Tyler Bray

The Bears could look to sign an undrafted free agent later this month to, at best, compete with Bray — who was only guaranteed $45,000 in his one-year, $795,000 deal, according to Spotrac — and at worst be a camp arm to have in Bourbonnais. Both Daniel and Bray know Nagy’s offense well, which is why they’re here. 

“So now you get Chase and Tyler that both know the offense, that are there to just from both sides help Mitch out,” Nagy said. “But yet, they’re both going to compete. So now Tyler goes in there. Tyler is very accurate, has a really strong arm with great accuracy. And really has grown into a really good person and than as a player, he hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunity. And now unfair to him at the end of the game there, you know, he had that one play, and there were some different conditions and different scenarios. That’s now who Tyler is, but he knows his role and he’s just going to help out Mitch.”

Running back

1. Jordan Howard
2. Tarik Cohen
3. Benny Cunningham

While there are some questions about Howard’s fit in Nagy’s offense — which requires its running backs to be reliable pass-catchers — the only running back in franchise history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career will have a prominent role in 2018. Cohen’s versatility fits a lot of what Nagy wants to do, and he’ll have more help around him this year than he did in 2017, when opposing defenses were able to double-team him without leaving themselves exposed. 

Cunningham reportedly will return to the Bears, which doesn't necessarily take Ryan Pace out of the market to draft a running back. But the Bears like Cunningham's leadership, pass protection skills and special teams play, all of which may be traits difficult to find in a mid-to-late-round running back.

But the focus on this unit is how Howard and Cohen can play off each other. 

“They’re completely different, right? But you can you use them in different ways,” Nagy said. “You can move them out and if they want to go ahead and try to cover you with a linebacker or cover you with a safety, that may predicate, dictate what you’re going to do offensively. I think you’re seeing that because of those two things, injuries and then because of positional flexibility of being able to get matchups.”

“X” and “Z” (outside) wide receiver

1. Allen Robinson
2. Kevin White

1. Cameron Meredith
2. Joshua Bellamy

Meredith isn’t officially back in the fold yet, as he remains a restricted free agent following the Bears’ decision to place an original round tender — worth $1.907 million — on him last month. Here’s reportedly attracted interest from the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints, but hasn’t signed an offer sheet, which the Bears would have the opportunity to match. The Bears were prepared for this, though, and teams are able to present offer sheets to Meredith through April 20. 

“When we tendered him that way, we know these are some of the circumstances,” Pace said. “So we’re monitoring it closely. We know we’ll have a decision to make if an offer comes in, and we’re prepared for that.”

If the Bears were to lose Meredith, drafting a receiver would become a priority. But Nagy wants to give White every opportunity to succeed, and if the 2015 first-round pick makes the roster, he probably won’t be a part of Chris Tabor’s special teams units. That’s generally a requirement for reserve receivers — Bellamy is a special teams ace — and would mean that if the Bears do draft a receiver, he’ll probably be someone who can contribute on special teams. The point: Don’t look for the Bears to draft a receiver in the first round, and potentially not in the second round, either. 

“Zebra” (slot) receiver

1. Taylor Gabriel
2. Tarik Cohen

The primary responsibility for the “Zebra” receiver in Nagy’s offense is to play the slot, but it’s a versatile position that looks to be an ideal fit for these two diminutive, speedy players. Nagy said the Chiefs’ coaching staff scouted Cohen during the pre-draft process a year ago, though it didn’t sound as extensive as the Saints’ work on him.

“Y” (in-line) tight end

1. Adam Shaheen
2. Dion Sims
3. Ben Braunecker

“U” (split out) tight end

1. Trey Burton
2. Daniel Brown

The Bears are set at tight end, roster-wise, with Shaheen, Sims and Burton topping the depth chart and Braunecker and Brown solid special teams contributors. 

The boom-or-bust potential in this unit is huge — Shaheen and Burton combined last year for only 35 catches and 375 yards, but also combined for eight touchdowns. At best, Burton can be a highly-targeted matchup nightmare between the 20’s, with Shaheen an excellent finisher in the red zone. At worst, neither player takes the step the Bears envision, and the productivity from this position doesn’t improve much from 2017’s mediocre-at-best results. 

“(Burton) was the second, sometimes third, tight end in Philadelphia,” Nagy said. “Well, now we’re going to put him in a role where those numbers are going to be able to jump up. And that’s on us to be able to do that.”

Left tackle

1. Charles Leno
2. Bradley Sowell

Left guard

1. Eric Kush
1A. Earl Watford

Update: The Bears made official a one-year deal with Watford on Tuesday. The 27-year-old former Arizona Cardinals interior offensive lineman has played in 42 games, starting 22, in his four-year NFL career. 

Center

1. Cody Whitehair
2. Hroniss Grasu

Right guard

1. Kyle Long
2. Jordan Morgan

Right tackle

1. Bobby Massie
2. Bradley Sowell

A few options are here as the Bears look toward the NFL Draft next month. If Quenton Nelson is available when the No. 8 pick comes around, re-uniting the former Notre Dame guard with Harry Hiestand would be a layup. Nelson projects as a longtime Pro Bowler, and with the pool of quality offensive linemen shrinking seemingly by the year, it doesn’t matter that he’s “only” a guard. 

But for those reasons, the chances Nelson makes it to No. 8 may not be good. The Bears could opt to draft an interior offensive lineman with their second-round pick — as they did with Cody Whitehair in 2016 — and have him compete with Kush, Morgan and/or Grasu in training camp. Or the team could stick with Kush, who played well in 2016, and perhaps look to draft Massie’s eventual replacement at right tackle. Either way, it’d be surprising if the Bears didn’t take at least one offensive lineman in the draft. 

In moving forward with Dion Sims, the Bears will keep a mix of skillsets at tight end

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USA Today

In moving forward with Dion Sims, the Bears will keep a mix of skillsets at tight end

When the Bears signed Trey Burton to a four-year contract worth a reported $32 million (with $18 million of it guaranteed), the natural thought was this: So long, Dion Sims. But the Bears are all but certainly going to hang on to the 27-year-old tight end after his $4 million roster bonus became fully guaranteed on Friday, barring a trade. 

“We like Dion Sims, a well-rounded tight end,” general manager Ryan Pace said on Thursday. “We’re excited we got him.”

Cynically — or, perhaps, fairly — Pace’s comments could’ve been interpreted as part of a play to trade Sims, who signed a three-year contract in 2017. The Bears saw Sims as a strong run blocker with pass-catching upside, but still gave themselves an out after one year that would’ve netted $5.666 million in cap savings. 

Sims didn’t show any of that receiving upside last year, though, catching 15 of 29 targets (51 percent) for 180 yards with one touchdown. Crucially, the Bears have the cap space to keep Sims, even with the flurry of signings they’ve announced this week -- and Kyle Fuller's reported four-year, $56 million extension -- and contract extensions looming for Eddie Goldman and possibly Adrian Amos, too. 

So hanging on to Sims means the Bears value his contributions as a run blocker and are willing to shoulder a $6.3 million cap hit for him to primarily be used in that role. The Bears expect Shaheen to be their primary in-line tight end, with Burton and Daniel Brown, who signed a one-year contract Friday, the more pass-catching-oriented “move” guys in Matt Nagy’s offense. But Sims will still have a role as the Bears look to maximize their production from the tight end position. 

“I think we can use all our tight ends,” Pace said. “I think the Super Bowl champions are a recent example of that, of using a lot of tight ends. They’re all valuable weapons. They’re all a little different. I think they all complement each other. It fits together nicely.”

Has Adam Shaheen actually lived up to expectations in 2017?

Has Adam Shaheen actually lived up to expectations in 2017?

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.