LAKE FOREST, Ill. – If Bears fans were allowed in to Halas Hall to watch training camp practices, one of the first things you’d notice would be just how big this team’s tight ends are.
Jimmy Graham is listed at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds. Cole Kmet: 6-foot-6, 262 pounds. Demetrius Harris is 6-foot-7 and looks bigger than 230 pounds in pads. These are some big, big dudes.
“That's an extremely friendly target to the quarterback,” coach Matt Nagy said.
Okay, but fans at last year’s training camp in Bourbonnais probably noticed some large adults at tight end. Adam Shaheen (6-foot-6, 257) and Bradley Sowell (6-foot-6, 277) were hardly undersized for the position.
Neither player, though, was particularly good at playing tight end. And the other tight ends who made the Bears’ initial roster weren’t, comparatively, hefty humans: Trey Burton was 6-foot-2; Ben Braunecker 6-foot-3.
The difference in 2020 is not only do the Bears have a handful of hulking tight ends, but they’re actually showing up with good plays in practice. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we’ve seen more from the Bears’ tight ends through four practices in 2020 than we saw all of training camp 2019.
“I made my bones in being able to guard teams’ best tight ends for years now,” veteran safety Tashaun Gipson said. “And this is a challenging group.”
The Bears' tight end room is, early on in camp, trending toward being a legitimately good group, not the national joke it became this offseason. Who cares how many tight ends are on the roster if you have a few good ones?
This isn’t to say you should rush to plant Graham atop your fantasy football pre-draft rankings or make sure you snag a Kmet jersey before they're out of stock. It’s still early, and the Bears are still betting on 1) the 33-year-old Graham stopping or reversing the regression that showed up on tape and in his stats last year and 2) Kmet having a productive rookie year despite few tight ends actually having productive rookie years.
But also: I’m not sure the Bears need Pro Bowl-level play out of their tight end group. At the very least, they need these guys to be acceptable. Nagy needs to trust in more than one tight end to do his assignments when he’s on the field.
This is an offense that can thrive with multiple tight ends. Nagy just hasn’t had multiple tight ends he can trust since arriving in Chicago.
Only seven teams used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) less than the Bears (14 percent) since 2018. No team used 12 personnel more than the Philadelphia Eagles in the same timespan; the Kansas City Chiefs are fourth in 12 personnel usage since 2018. About 20 percent of plays league-wide in the last two years used 12 personnel.
So not only did the Bears use 12 personnel less than this scheme’s closest cousins, but they were below league average.
That’s why you should be encouraged by what you’re reading out of Lake Forest this week. It has to continue through August and into September, but if it does, I don’t see how this offense can be as bad as it was in 2019. It’ll be better, and not just incrementally better.
Oh, and it’ll be better no matter who’s playing quarterback.
“I really think that that tight end room is a strength of ours right now,” Nagy said. “We like that. That's very important in this offense.”