Bears Roster Review is a weekly conversation about the state of the 2020 Bears roster from JJ Stankevitz and Cam Ellis. This week: tight ends.
CAM ELLIS: JJ, hello. Our favorite running joke of the last two years or so is that ____ position group is the Tight End Situation of 2019. However I can't get the idea that the Bears' Tight End Situation of 2020 is actually the most Tight End Situation of 2019 of all. I care less about the fact that there are 42 tight ends on the roster now than I do about the fact that I'm not sure any of them are good. Consider that my first Take of this chat.
JJ STANKEVITZ: The Bears will have better tight ends in 2020 than they did in 2019. I think it's kind of impossible for that group to be as bad as they were last year! As a group, Bears tight ends had 46 catches for 416 yards and two touchdowns. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a 33-year-old Jimmy Graham to surpass at least two of those three stats.
But the concern I have is: How much better will the Bears' tight ends be? Slightly? A little? Somewhat? A lot?
ELLIS: If I'm a Bears fan I'm hoping for 'somewhat' but bracing for 'slightly'. Jimmy Graham stays on the field (153 games played in 10 seasons), which, you're right, is automatically better than what the team got last year. My thing about the Jimmy Graham signing is that it's *so* indefensible that I almost think we're all missing something. I don't mind the Bears making a run at him, or even signing him for that matter, but the urgency with which it all happened was so bizarre that I wonder if Nagy's got something weird cooking. It's also entirely possible that I'm just giving Ryan Pace too much credit.
STANKEVITZ: The contract isn't so awful in a vacuum - it's one year, $9 million at the least - but it begs the question of who the Bears were bidding against to make Graham a priority free agent. Either way: If Graham's biggest selling point is his durability, that's more than could be said for Trey Burton or Adam Shaheen. And there are still some flashes of the old Graham in there - he showed it a few times in the playoffs - but it's tough to expect Graham to do that consistently in his mid-30's.
A repeat of his 2019 season - 38 catches, 447 yards, 3 TDs - would still be an improvement, especially if the Bears are able to get something out of Cole Kmet at the "Y."
ELLIS: I guess my question is ... would that be good enough? (conflict!) In 2018, Trey Burton caught 54 balls for 569 and 6 TDs – career bests for him – and the general consensus was that he still needed to find another level. We agree that if Cole Kmet is able to somewhat mirror that production, the Bears could have something. But we've already talked about the (lack of) impact of rookie tight ends historically, so this feels like a LOT of dice rolling on a position that we continually are told is what is going to lift Nagy's offense to its potential. I hate being a buzzkill but, man, this just feels so dire to me.
STANKEVITZ: It absolutely is dire! As Burton succinctly told me last year: "Usually when this type of offense is doing well, the tight end’s doing well.” But here's where I do have some hope, even if Graham and Kmet aren't much better than Burton was in 2018: Hopefully, the mere presence of capable U and Y tight ends means the Bears offense can finally use 12 personnel more.
The Eagles led the NFL in 12 personnel usage and the Chiefs were 5th. The Bears haven't had a consistent, reliable "Y" tight end since Nagy got here - Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen and last year's cadre of mediocrity didn't cut it. Kmet may have a difficult transition to the NFL but he's much more NFL-ready than someone like Shaheen was, and I think the Bears can get him on the field reliably this fall.
Doing that then allows different avenues to open up for the offense with mismatches created using 12 personnel. Play-action from 12 personnel is awfully effective, and if the Bears can just take advantage of that - even if the ball doesn't go to a tight end - it'll improve their offense as a whole.
ELLIS: I'm glad you bring that up! I think it's such an important point because without that heavy personnel, the offense is going to base a lot of what they do in 11. And that's not great news for them:
Here are the 5 slowest teams (based on 40 times) in 11 personnel for 2020 season: pic.twitter.com/ClbU5yINGo— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 12, 2020
STANKEVITZ: I think 11 personnel became the default for Nagy not necessarily because of scheme, but because of personnel. He didn't have the TEs to run 12 and at least had capable WRs in 11, even if they're not explosive.
ELLIS: Saying a NFL team is slow because of average 40 times is an exercise ripe for criticism, but I think it adds great context into how much they need two useful tight ends. We've never seen it in the Nagy era! Which brings me to my next question. Adam Shaheen: Bears tight end on Week 1?
STANKEVITZ: I don't see how.
Graham, Kmet and I think Demetrius Harris are all locks for the roster. That leaves 1-2 spots open for competition and not only are Ben Braunecker and J.P. Holtz better tight ends than Shaheen, they also play special teams. This feels kind of cut and dry. Maybe Shaheen has a huge camp but there's little he's done over the last 3 years to suggest he will.
ELLIS: Yeah, I think I agree. I'm actually a bit surprised Shaheen stayed on the roster longer than Burton, too. It'd be one thing if he was BabyGronking up and down the seams all game and couldn't stay healthy. But his on-field play has been arguably more disheartening than his run of injuries, which is hard to do. The Bears could save $1.2 million if they were to release him, and I wonder how much that will be taken into consideration whenever Pace meets with his Cap team this summer. The Bears aren't quite looking through couch pillows, but $1.2 million isn't an insignificant number to move somewhere else.
STANKEVITZ: I don't see the harm in keeping Shaheen around just for one last shot, but he's the kind of guy who might not make it to cut-down day if he doesn't do much in camp. $1.2 million when you don't desperately need it is fine - now, if they were to turn around and want to sign Larry Warford, maybe you cut Shaheen to free up a roster spot and some money at the same time. But consider Shaheen a cautionary tale for Gronk Comparison Twitter. There is only one Gronk, and Shaheen ain't it. Neither is Cole Kmet. Which would be fine! If Kmet lands somewhere between getting a bust in Canton and being a bust, he'll be a good draft pick.
ELLIS: Yeah, and Bears fans should be excited to see what Kmet can do. It feels like conversation about tight ends in 2020 only focuses on If You're A Hall Of Fame Talent And If Not, Why? – which sucks. He brings an athleticism to the position that I'm not sure Nagy's had with the Bears yet. Everyone says he's a bright kid, which bodes well for the intricacies of Nagy's infamously-complicated tight end playbook.
And now after a great game, we can say that Nagy Kmetted to a new tight end approach. Please credit me when that is used, which it absolutely will be.
STANKEVITZ: Fine fine you can have it. I'm going to stick with Cole Power as my headline.
But one thing that stood out to me when I talked with Chip Long, Notre Dame's former offensive coordinator, about Kmet is that he hasn't been able to focus on just football. He played baseball at Notre Dame, too, and it's not like you can totally blow off academics in South Bend. You hear that about a lot of players coming out of college - they can only focus on football now! - but it doesn't ring hollow for Kmet.
I'm interested to see how he debuts as a run blocker, since the Bears not upgrading their offensive line outside of Germain Ifedi in the offseason felt like a nod to how much they're hoping better tight end play can help in the run game.
ELLIS: Yeah, and you can call the pick a reach, but the Bears *needed* a young, promising tight end in the worst way. He's a physical guy, but you're right – I remember talking to Jesper Horsted last season and hearing him talk about how surprisingly complicated run-blocking schemes could get for tight ends. It's an under-appreciated part of the position. OK, I want to end this with a half-dozen speed questions. Are you ready to quickly type YES or NO?
STANKEVITZ: Yes I am Cam.
ELLIS: Love it. Does Cole Kmet catch more TDs than Jimmy Graham?
STANKEVITZ: No. Graham finishes with 3, Kmet has 2.
ELLIS: Book those Orlando tickets! Do the Bears keep more than 4 TEs on the gameday roster?
STANKEVITZ: Yes. Graham, Kmet, Harris, Braunecker, Holtz all make it.
ELLIS: Does Demetrius Harris have a bigger impact than the Holtz/Braunecker duo on offense?
STANKEVITZ: Yes. Harris can play both the Y and the U and does have 6 TDs in the last two years, so I also wouldn't be shocked if he led Bears tight ends in TDs this year.
ELLIS: !!! Interesting. Lastly: Are Bears fans satisfied with the tight end production they get when the 2020 season ends?
STANKEVITZ: Yes. Satisfied is not necessarily pleased though.
ELLIS: That's kinda dark.
STANKEVITZ: Well, until the Bears' offense proves they're better than being one of the worst in the league, you gotta be skeptical!