BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The Bears made Trey Burton a priority target in 2018 free agency, with a plan. The fifth-year tight end had toiled in the long shadows of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz with the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles, and Burton was deemed an ideal fit in the offense of incoming Bears coach Matt Nagy when he and GM Ryan Pace talked on the flight back to Chicago after his hiring. The objective centered around the “U” (mobile) tight-end role with which Nagy and coach Andy Reid had used with great success in the person of Travis Kelce in the Kansas City Chiefs offense.
Pace and the Bears went all-in and then some, signing Burton to a four-year contract topping out at $32 million and including $18 million guaranteed. They did this at the tight-end position in addition to choosing to keep Dion Sims at $6 million for 2018 and re-signing Daniel Brown for $925,000 for one year, on top of having in place 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen. The commitment to the critical tight-end role in Nagy’s iteration of the West Coast offense was apparent.
But things are rarely that simple.
Because along with the pass-catching prowess that drew the Bears to Burton (five TDs in 23 catches in 2017, six TDs over his last 60 receptions) comes an obvious shortcoming in an area typically critical at the tight-end position: blocking.
Burton the receiver has delivered as expected throughout the first week of training camp, and on Thursday, catching passes in all areas of the field, ranging from a deep completion from quarterback Mitch Trubisky to a quick hitter underneath the coverage.
But Burton was soundly thrashed in one-on-one pass blocking drills on Thursday, bull-rushed by linebacker Isaiah Irving and whiffing against an arm-over move by linebacker Kylie Fitts on separate reps. And in full-pad sessions, he was out-physicaled at the point of attack in run blocking, which is an alien experience for an athlete who served as a quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and on kick coverage at Florida. Burton made the Eagles’ roster in 2014 as an undrafted free agent, listed as a tight end but who had five carries as a running back and zero receptions as anything.
The problem with a position player with a gaping void in his skillset is that his presence in the lineup limits play-calling options and execution. Size does matter: Kelce is 6-5, 260 pounds; Celek, 6-5, 250; Ertz, 6-4, 255. Shaheen (270), Sims (271) and even Brown (247 pounds) or Ben Braunecker (252) place some mass at the position.
Burton (235) does not, and he calls to mind a Ryan Wetnight (235) catching as many as 46 passes in a season but being rag-dolled trying to run- or pass-block a Reggie White, Chris Doleman or other physical edge defender.
Burton has prioritized run blocking “and getting in that condition for playing a lot more plays than I have in the past,” he said. “I never really got that many opportunities to work on the run game stuff because I was the third [tight end] and Celek and Ertz were the majority of the run game. I’m trying to make more pride into that and spend more time with that… .
“The difficult part of [run blocking] is losing more than you win. In the one-on-ones I’m going against bigger dudes, but I want to get more and more reps. I’m not going to win every single rep—I understand that—but just having the humility of going in there constantly and getting beat but trying every single time, it helps me a lot.”
Burton, like backup QBs Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray coming from their backgrounds with Nagy, provides an element in the offense. And he also brings a voice of perspective in what the offense is about.
"It's really good,” Nagy said. “[As a] matter of fact, when we're in installs, I may say 'Hey Trey,' I may ask him a question, I may say, ‘Hey Trey, is this how you all have done it in Philadelphia with Doug [Pederson, coach] or etc.?'… . Trey knows this offense inside out, he understands leverage, he understands how to get open so eventually we'll start scheming for him."
But the Bears have assistant coaches for quarterbacks, tight ends and every position group. Meaning: Burton’s value must be in playing, not mentoring. The organization once erred badly in signing a one-dimensional, blocker-only tight end (Brandon Manumaleuna, 2010). Nagy has alluded to “scat” pass protection with running backs providing protection through other than head-on blocking, and how Burton is integrated into the offense without sacrificing a dimension warrants watching.
“You can call Trey a ‘U’ tight end/receiver, but Trey is going to have to know the ‘Y’ [in-line] position as well,” Nagy said. "This is no longer a deal where you’re just playing a split-out tight end position.”