The Bears have to get better at tight end.
Last year, their guys at the spot combined for 46 catches, 422 yards and two touchdowns — worse production than 12 individual tight ends had around the league in 2019 (yikes).
So, how should Ryan Pace go about fixing the most glaring weakness on his roster?
Presenting a three-part plan to beef up Clancy Barone's tight end room:
1. Hang in with Mr. Hooper
The Falcons' Austin Hooper is the best fit for what the Bears need. He’s a highly productive receiver (146 catches, 1,447 yards, 10 TDs the last two years) who has the flexibility to play both the “U” (slot) and “Y” (in-line) tight end positions in Nagy’s offense. He’s never graded as a top-end blocker but the Bears like what Demetrius Harris, who they signed earlier this month, can do in that space.
Because of those qualities, and that he’s only 25, Hooper is going to get paid on the open market. Spotrac estimates a five-year contract worth about $50 million. It wouldn’t be surprising if he gets more. Either way, expect Hooper to be the NFL’s top-paid tight end some time in mid-March.
The Bears could make the money work on Hooper, so long as they don’t enter some sort of ludicrous bidding war. A four or five-year deal could be a bit backloaded to soften the cap hit in 2020, especially with Trey Burton still on the roster (more on that shortly).
If Hooper’s price gets driven to the point where he’s not worth the money (like more than $12 million per year, perhaps), the Bears should train their focus on a guy willing to sign a shorter-term deal. Eric Ebron makes sense, even if he’s known for dropping too many passes. He’s more of a “U” who could be good Burton insurance, while someone like the 34-year-old Darren Fells could be a cheap option at the “Y.”
This does not mean targeting someone like Hunter Henry or Tyler Eifert, players with varying levels of upside but significant durability concerns.
The benefit of a free agent on a shorter contract is that the Bears would improve their tight end room in 2020 and won’t need a draft pick to immediately contribute. But Hooper is still the best option here as long as the price is right.
2. Don’t count on Trey Burton but don’t count him out.
Burton’s contract is built to keep him in Chicago in 2020. The Bears would have to eat $7.5 million in dead cap while only saving a little over $1 million if they were to release him. That’s not worth it right now, even if Burton was truly awful last season.
“Our hope is that we finally kinda solved the issue and that there’s an upward trajectory now with him,” Pace said of Burton’s offseason hip surgery. “That’s our hope.”
The Bears, though, should view whatever they get out of Burton as a bonus. He caught 54 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns in 2018; even half of that would be valuable in 2020.
Training camp should essentially be a tryout for Burton. If he’s still not himself a year and a half after this injury stuff started, then the Bears could cut him. But that’s a move to be made in late August, not late February.
And if Burton is healthy and looks like himself again? That’s great and it wouldn’t be a problem to fit him with Hooper, Ebron, Harris, draft picks, etc.
3. Draft a tight end but don’t view him as *the* solution.
Expecting Cole Kmet, Brycen Hopkins or Adam Trautman to make an immediate, significant impact would be a foolish bet for a team that can’t afford to whiff on this position again in 2020.
This is less a commentary on their NFL potential and more an argument based on history. Tight end is a hard position to play in Year 1, as it requires a load of responsibilities and physical play that rookies often struggle to carry.
Over the last decade, there have been 29 tight ends picked in the first two rounds of an NFL draft. Their numbers, on average, in their rookie years: 44 targets, 27 catches, 306 yards and three touchdowns.
So, Adam Shaheen’s rookie year (12 catches, 127 yards, three touchdowns) is far closer to the norm than Rob Gronkowski’s (42 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns).
That does not mean Pace shouldn’t draft a tight end. But it can’t be his only solution.
The depth chart
At the Y:
1. Austin Hooper
2. Demetrius Harris
3. Ben Braunecker/JP Holtz
At the U:
1. Trey Burton
2. TBD draft pick
3. Ben Braunecker/Jesper Horsted
This means releasing Shaheen, which would save a little over $1 million in cap space, and letting Braunecker, Holtz and Horsted battle for one spot on the roster (Braunecker could also be released to free up some cap space).
The Bears can win with that depth chart. It’ll require Pace to pour money and draft capital into a position that he’s, well, already poured money (with Burton) and draft capital (with Shaheen) into. But a fix here would be a massive boon to Nagy's offense and whoever winds up playing quarterback in 2020.