Bears

Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

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. 

RELATED: A sense of urgency could lead Bears to change quarterbacks

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.

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Danny Trevathan already knows just how dominant the 2020 Bears defense can be

Danny Trevathan already knows just how dominant the 2020 Bears defense can be

While most of yesterday's Bears media availability focused on more pressing issues, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan both breifly talked about the state of the Bears' defense heading into 2020. 

2018's historically good side came down to earth a bit last year, but the free agent additions of Robert Quinn and Tashaun Gipson, along with rookies Jaylon Johnson,  Kindle Vildor, and Trevis Gipson have some believing there's enough talent on the unit to compete with 2018's production. Healthy seasons from leaders Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan will do wonders, too. 

"We’re going to be monsters," Trevathan said. "There’s no doubt in my mind. I watched Quinn from afar. I know he’s been going for a while. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a wrecking machine. Now you’ve got to watch this side here, this side over here. You’ve got to watch the middle. You’ve got to watch the back end. Front seven. Dangerous."

And though they haven't been able to practice together yet, Trevathan mentioned that he's been encouraged by the steps the defense has taken to ensure that the transition back to the practice field goes as seamlessly as possible.

"I feel like right now is the time where we create that communication between one another," he added. "We’re kind of the first people in the history of football to have to deal with a situation like this. We’ve got to hold it down on our part. That’s why I feel like keeping in contact with one another is going to be a deciding factor between which team comes out of this victorious and on top. And I feel like we have the people on this team and this defense to be one of the ones who stand out and ones who come out of this positively. I feel like all we have to do is take one day at a time. Push one another. Call one another out. Have each other’s back. And let’s roll out."

How Bears are thinking about playing football again amid coronavirus pandemic

How Bears are thinking about playing football again amid coronavirus pandemic

Football players are conditioned to block out things on the “outside noise.” The focus for the Bears, though, has recently been on racial injustice and police brutality — and those topics will continue to be part of the team’s daily discussions. There’s no blocking those out anymore or taking a "stick to sports" mindset. 

Linebacker Danny Trevathan isn’t concerned about those issues impacting his, and his teammates’, ability to play football, though. But something else might. 

“I'm more worried about Corona than I'm worried about that in football,” Trevathan said. “I’m not worried about, I mean it still exists in the world so let's not forget about corona, bro. You know, I might go to camp and somebody might have that and I might not be able to play no more.”

MORE: Inside the Bears' emotional team meeting on Monday

Typically, the Bears would right now be in the midst of OTA practices at Halas Hall. The offseason program would conclude with a minicamp in mid-June, providing coaches with a total of 13 non-padded practices to install the playbook and build a foundation ahead of training camp. 

None of those practices will take place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Coaches will be allowed to return to team facilities on Friday but no more than 100 employees can be in a building at one time. And no players will be allowed, meaning none of the remaining OTA practices or this month’s veteran minicamp will be conducted in person. 

So the first time the Bears as a team physically convene again will almost certainly be for the start of training camp. But coronavirus will still be around when that happens. 

“It is scary,” defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “It's scary to think that most of my job is physical contact with other players. And so boy, I don't know. I don't know. I want to be safe and I'm sure they're going to do their best to make sure we're in the best possible situation in order to be able to play this game and do it, right? But it's scary. That's how I feel.”

How the NFL handles concerns from players like Hicks will be critical. Players will inevitably test positive for coronavirus, but widespread outbreaks in team facilities will need to be prevented. 

"We fully well expect that we will have positive cases that arise because we think that this disease will remain endemic in society and so it shouldn't be a surprise that new positive cases arise," Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical doctor, said last month. "Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and to prevent spread to any other participants. We're working very diligently on that and we'll have some detailed plans to share about that at a later time."

MORE: Read Akiem Hicks' full comments on social injustice and Colin Kaepernick

The NFL and the NFLPA have at least a month and a half to plan for returning to play in the midst of a pandemic. There is a certain level of trust, though, that wide receiver Allen Robinson has in the sport’s decision-makers to create as low-risk an environment as possible this season. 

Robinson, too, has recently been working out with and catching passes from Mitch Trubisky recently (which coach Matt Nagy said is "freaking awesome"). 

“Honestly, me personally, I'm not too concerned,” Robinson said. “I think that if we're going to be put back in the facility I think that measures are going to be taken. I think that a plan will be had and I think that enough research and stuff will have been done to put everybody in the best kind of situation.”

Let’s hope Robinson is right. Because while the NBA, NHL, MLS and the NWSL have moved toward returning to play — and Major League Baseball moves toward a ruinous destruction of the sport — none of those leagues have actually staged games yet. The NFL has the ability (and luxury) to see what problems may arise with those sports’ return before encountering those issues as a league. 

But as Trevathan said, we can’t forget about corona (bro). It’s — unfortunately — another massive issue facing our country, one that’s also bigger than football. We’ll eagerly await the NFL’s plan to keep its players, coaches and staff safe in 2020. 

Until then, though, maybe we’ll try to figure out what was actually in Hicks’ Quarantini cocktail. 

“There’s been a lot of variations,” Hicks laughed. “What I will say is this: after I found out that, I read an article — and just like everybody else, you read an article on twitter and every other form of media — they said that drinking alcohol could increase your chances of getting COVID. That kinda went down the drain at that point. 

“But I will say this: Tequila was involved.”

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