The Bears will be without tight ends Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen against the Los Angeles Rams, and running back David Montgomery will be a gametime decision prior to Sunday night’s contest in California.
Burton missed all three of the Bears’ practices this week with a calf injury suffered at the end of the Bears’ win over the Detroit Lions last week, while Shaheen popped up on the injury report with a foot issue and missed both Thursday and Friday’s practices. Montgomery rolled his ankle during practice Wednesday, was held out of Thursday’s practice and then returned in a limited fashion on Friday.
The upshot here is the Bears may need to take a deep dive into their depth at tight end and running back just to staff those positions for a game they can’t afford to lose. The emphasis, though, is on the word “may.”
Coach Matt Nagy has frequently referred to the “U” tight end position — which Burton plays — as an important “adjuster” in his offense. But he indicated the Bears could look at other positions to be that “adjuster,” meaning the Bears wouldn’t necessarily need to lean on, say, current practice squad tight end Jesper Horsted on Sunday.
The Bears were already without Shaheen last weekend when they decided to make him a healthy scratch on gameday, and had Ben Braunecker and J.P. Holtz take over the 2017 second-round pick’s snaps as an in-line (“Y”) tight end. Braunecker has the flexibility to step in for Burton at the “U,” so the Bears could wind up feeling okay about having him and Holtz as their two primary tight ends on Sunday. Bradley Sowell is on the roster, too, and could be active for the first time since Week 2 a backup "Y."
Meaning: Those waiting for Horsted to get a shot two and a half months after his impressive preseason ended may be left wanting.
“Jesper’s just now learning the position,” tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said this week, while also praising his work ethic and desire to improve.
So the best bet here is Horsted gets called up to the active roster but isn’t a significant part of the Bears’ gameplan on Sunday. Notably, though, Nagy did not dismiss the idea of placing Burton on injured reserve — which would end his season — when asked on Friday.
“It’s been frustrating for Trey,” Nagy said. “You can understand that. And it has been frustrating for us, which you can understand that as well. They’ll be some decisions that we’ve got to collaborate — we’ve got to get together and just talk it through and see what’s best for him and what’s best for us and then decide on that.”
If Burton were to go on injured reserve, it would give Horsted a better chance to be evaluated in 2019 with an eye on if he could contribute in 2020.
The same goes for Ryan Nall, the second-year undrafted free agent who could play his first regular season snaps on offense if Montgomery is not able to go on Sunday. But the Bears aren’t at the point of looking ahead of 2020 yet, not while they still have a chance — albeit a small one — of reaching the playoffs.
So instead of Nall, that could mean the Bears use Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson as their primary running backs, even if neither is prototypical at the position.
“There's definite opportunities there (for Patterson),” Nagy said. “Again, there's some flexibility in our roster and the versatility that we have. It can sometimes make it a little bit difficult as a play-caller, as a schemer as to what you want to do, but when things like this come up out of nowhere and they're unfortunate, you just have to be able to not flinch.”
(As an aside: The Bears still made the correct call in releasing veteran Mike Davis last week, as doing so indicates they believe they’ll receive a compensatory draft pick in 2020 through the league’s complex, secretive formula.)
The Bears are 4-5 and have a greater than zero percent chance of making the playoffs (Football Outsiders has it at 3.6 percent entering the weekend). Once this team’s hopes in 2019 are extinguished, then it’ll be time for them to start looking at players like Horsted and Nall who haven’t got a chance this year but perhaps could in 2020.
But they’re not there yet, meaning it’s not yet to time start throwing undrafted free agents on the field to see what they can do.