The Bears insist Trey Burton’s groin injury is mild and unrelated to the sports hernia surgery he underwent this spring. The tight end practiced Monday in a limited fashion, which for now seems like a good sign as the team operates with a day-by-day approach to Burton’s status for Thursday’s season opener against the Green Bay Packers.
But until Burton actually plays a snap at Soldier Field, it’s not unreasonable to worry about the impact his absence may have on the Bears’ offense. After all, the Bears’ offense struggled the last time Burton missed a game, that being January’s playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Before the infamous double-doink, the Bears’ offense managed just 15 points while Tarik Cohen only had four touches, the product of the Eagles focusing on him without Burton to worry about.
The good news — if there really is any with this latest setback — is the Bears will be better prepared to handle Burton being sidelined. Coach Matt Nagy said the team is scheming for both Burton playing and not playing Thursday, and from a personnel standpoint, this is a deeper group of offensive players than the Bears had at their disposal eight months ago.
“You have to find that next answer, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “You have to build those contingency plans. Unfortunately things happen. Overall, yeah, hopefully we are in a better place — I think we are in a better place, in terms of wideout, in terms of running back, guys that you can have no hesitation and plug and play.”
The Bears aren’t creating those contingency plans with a narrow focus on Ben Braunecker replacing Burton in the lineup. There’s much more that would go into it, as Helfrich alluded to, from a personnel standpoint. Instead of Jordan Howard, Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell, Josh Bellamy and Kevin White, the Bears have David Montgomery, Mike Davis, Kerrith Whyte, Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley. Each of those five players represents a talent upgrade over the guy they replaced.
The point being: Even if an opposing team were to try to take Cohen out of the offense with Burton not on the field, there are more players who can make up for that schematic focus than the team had a year ago.
“We have different things that we can do,” Nagy said. “And so when things like this come up, if he's ready to go, he's ready to go. If he's not, we're prepared.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is the “U” (move) tight end is an integral part of Nagy’s offense, and Braunecker is largely untested, having only been targeted 13 times in his three-year career, including twice in the playoffs.
Adam Shaheen plays a different position — the “Y” (in-line) spot — so even if his workload increases in the absence of Burton, it wouldn’t quite be the same offense. Plus, he has his own durability questions to answer, having missed 13 games in his first two years in the NFL.
The best thing for the Bears would be if Burton plays on Thursday, and then in every other regular season game, as he did in 2018. But this groin injury, which came on the heels of his return from sports hernia surgery, put whatever the Bears’ contingency plan is squarely back into focus.
“He’s more frustrated than anybody right now that this is happening but for us,” Nagy said. “It’s tough for him, it’s tough for us, but whatever happens we just have to keep moving.”