Three questions for Bears tight ends: Can Trey Burton be ‘the guy?’

Three questions for Bears tight ends: Can Trey Burton be ‘the guy?’

Pre-camp depth chart
U (move)
1. Trey Burton
2. Daniel Brown

Y (in-line)
1. Dion Sims
2. Adam Shaheen
3. Ben Braunecker
4. Colin Thompson

1. Will Trey Burton live up to his contract?

The Bears guaranteed Burton $22 million over the course of his four-year contract, and at the least committed themselves to the 26-year-old for the next two seasons. That’s a lot of cash for a guy who only had 63 receptions for 629 yards in four years with Philadelphia, during which he only started five games and never played more than 33 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps. 

But Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy identified the 6-foot-3, 235 pound Burton as an ideal fit to be the “U” tight end in the Bears’ offense in March. Burton did catch five touchdowns in 2017, and all five of those scores came from outside the opposing 10-yard line (for comparison, all three of Adam Shaheen’s touchdowns last year came from the one- or two-yard line). 

Another advantage for Burton is that he worked in an iteration of Nagy’s offense under Doug Pederson (another Andy Reid disciple) in Philadelphia. That knowledge showed up during OTAs, and allowed Burton and Mitch Trubisky to quickly develop good chemistry. 

“He can do anything we ask him within this offense,” Trubisky said. “He's going to get open, he's really smart, runs great routes and has sure hands. I feel like any time he's on the field, he's going to be open and make a play for us when we need it.”

Burton will be expected to play far more snaps with the Bears than he did with the Eagles, and his ability to handle that workload will go a long way toward determining if he can live up to that rich contract. Burton will have had about five months to prepare for his prominent role, though, and seemed to have the right mindset about it during the offseason program. 

“In Philly it was kind of tough for me because I never knew week in and week out how much I was going to play,” Burton said. “I was always preparing like I was going to play a lot. But then the games where I wouldn’t play a lot, I’d be a little disappointed. Now, I don’t think that will be the case. I know how to prepare to be the ‘the guy.’ It’s just kind of unfortunate that I haven’t had to do that. It’s not my first time jumping into that role.”

2. How much do the Bears like Dion Sims?

On the surface, it looked like Sims was in line to be a cap casualty in mid-March, when $4 million of his $6 million 2018 salary became fully guaranteed. The Bears, though — not hurting for cap space this year — decided to keep Sims, despite him putting up underwhelming receiving numbers (15 catches on 29 targets for 180 yards with one touchdown) and having some uneven games as a blocker in 2017 (which, perhaps, had something to do with facing so many stacked boxes thanks to the lack of creativity and talent in last year’s offense). 

The Bears may not be keeping Sims just to have him be a sparingly-used backup, either. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your ‘Y’ tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”

One of the more under-the-radar position battles we’ll get to see during training camp is the one at the “Y” tight end (in-line) between Sims and Shaheen. Both will play in 2018, and we may see each rotate through with the first-team offense, but don’t be surprised if you show up to Olivet Nazarene University for practice and see more of Sims working with Trubisky than Shaheen. 

3. Can Adam Shaheen make a leap in Year 2?

Shaheen will have to earn himself regular season playing time during training camp for the reasons outlined in question No. 2. While he and Trubisky showed a decent connection in 2017, he only was targeted 14 times — the product of some combination of him not being ready for more snaps and a conservative coaching staff being reticent to give him an extended rope. Shaheen still led the Bears with three receiving touchdowns, but as mentioned above, all three of those scores came from within the two-yard line. 

So there’s still a lot for Shaheen to prove in 2018. To his credit, the jump from Division II to the NFL was significant, and with a full year of practices, games and training under his belt, Shaheen said he feels far better prepared for Year 2 than Year 1. 

“It’s so much different for me this year, at least from a mental standpoint,” Shaheen said. “And knowing what I needed to do physically this offseason and doing what I had to do, and then coming out here, even with the new offense it just feels a lot slower.” 

What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

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What do the Bears hope to accomplish in joint practices with Broncos?

DENVER — With Roquan Smith finally in tow, the Bears headed to Denver on Tuesday for a pair of joint practices with the Broncos leading up Saturday’s preseason game at Mile High Stadium. 

The Bears last held joint practices with the New England Patriots in 2016, and for coach Matt Nagy, this week will be his first experience with practicing with and against another team. For Bears players, the opportunity to practice against opposition — instead of their teammates, as has been the case for nearly a month — will inject some life into the dog days of the preseason. 

“It’s a great opportunity to compete against other guys and you get to go out there, and you’ve been beating on your guys all year long and all training camp long,” defensive end Akiem Hicks. “It’s an opportunity to have some other type of competition. And then to finish it up and play them at the end of the week, it just works well.”

Nagy said on Sunday he doesn’t anticipate Wednesday and Thursday’s practices will be live, and Broncos coach Vance Joseph said on Tuesday he spoke with Nagy about working to prevent the kind of fights that have popped up in some other joint practices this month. Washington and the Jets, most notably, had an all-out brawl earlier this week in a joint practice. 

“It’s always good the biggest thing when you do these team scrimmages together, you just want to stay away form the fights,” Nagy said. “As long as guys do that it’s definitely a benefit for both teams.”

The main benefit lies in the boost players should get from competing against another team's players instead of their teammates. That competitive jolt is beneficial, especially for a team that’s been practicing longer than anyone else besides the Baltimore Ravens thanks to participating in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 2. 

“It’s a different defensive scheme all week,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We are lucky to go against a great defense in practice, but it will be nice to go against someone else (with) different styles and different coverages.

“It’s going to be competition all week, so we definitely have to bring it. It will be a great week for us to get better and compete and see who wants to win every single snap — not just a game, not just practice periods, but every single snap, every single rep.”

For Smith, Wednesday and Thursday will be a head-first dive into the Bears’ defense. Even if coaches try to ease him into things — which won’t necessarily be the case — it will come against an offense not controlled by Nagy and Mark Helfrich. These two practices will be a good early test for where Smith is in terms of knowledge and football shape after his four-week holdout. 

And for the rest of the Bears, these two practices represent an opportunity to compete against someone different while breaking up the monotony of preseason practices. That’s generally a good thing — even if you’re, say, a tight end who all of a sudden has to try to block Von Miller. 

“I know they have some good edge guys,” tight end Adam Shaheen said with a bit of a grin. “… I think once we saw the schedule, all the tight ends were looking at those guys. it’ll be a good challenge and a good chance to get better.”

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

How soon will Roquan Smith start? The Bears are ready to figure out the answer

Roquan Smith signed his rookie contract Tuesday morning and took part in a light walkthrough practice shortly thereafter at Halas Hall, but his coaches are still a ways away from anointing him as a contributor, let alone a starter, for Week 1 of the regular season.

In a more narrow scope, coach Matt Nagy said he wasn’t sure if Smith would be available for Saturday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos, but did say that the eighth overall pick would be in uniform for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the Broncos in Colorado. The first step for Nagy, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the Bears’ training staff will be to determine what kind of football shape Smith is in, which will become apparent in the coming days. 

Nagy said he might have an idea in a week or 10 days whether or not Smith will be able to contribute in Week 1, but not only does he have to prove that he’s in the right physical and mental shape to do so, he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than Nick Kwiatkoski. Chances are, the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will be able to prove he’s better than Kwiatkoski, who is a solid player in his own right. But if Smith can't, that would say more about him than it would about Kwiatkoski (who, again, Bears coaches already trust). 

“I’ve seen him out here with no pads on for an hour and a half,” Nagy said. “I’ll be able to stay in touch with Vic and we’ll ask, we’ll see how that goes and obviously you hope (he’ll contribute Week 1), right? That’s one of the benefits of him being here now but we just have to see. And I don’t think it’s fair to the other guys as well that have been out here battling each and every day, so again, go back to you have to earn it, and come out here and show it.”

Pro Football Talk reported the Bears and Smith’s camp reached a compromise to end the 29-day holdout. You can read the specifics here, but it boils down to this: Smith received ample protection for on-field disciplinary incidents, while the Bears retained their ability to void the guarantee on Smith’s money in an extreme case (think like if Smith becomes the next Vontaze Burfict). 

Smith declined to get into the specifics of his holdout, frequently deferring to “my agent and Mr. Pace” when asked for specifics. Nagy said he didn’t want to dwell on the past, now that the “past” of Smith’s holdout is over. 

But Nagy did say Smith was getting close to the point in his holdout where his availability for Week 1 would’ve been in doubt. So while the timing of Smith’s deal wasn’t ideal — ideal would’ve been mid-July — the opportunity is there for him to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’ll be ready for that curtain-lifting trip to Green Bay. 

“That’s up to the coaches, to decide on, you know, when they feel that I’m ready,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can do to prepare myself to get ready. I’ve got confidence in my coaches in there to catch me back up to speed.”

Smith’s level of participation will be closely watched in the coming weeks, starting with these two joint practices against the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday. Will he already be swiping first-team reps from Kwiatkoski, who had a solid camp while Smith was away? Will all the positive things he put on tape (without pads on) during OTAs and minicamp show back up? Or will he look a little lost early on and need some more time to get up to speed?

These joint practices will be an interesting introduction for Smith into the preseason, though, given the practices he has participated in — OTAs, minicamps and Tuesday’s walkthrough — have consisted of controllable, relatively low-intensity reps. 

“What’s going to happen is in practice that we go against each other there’s a normal consistent pace every day, and now it’s going to naturally pick up when you go against another team,” Nagy said. “But I’m not worried about it with Roquan. I know that he’ll be ready for that, as the rest of our guys will.”

While the Bears will want to give Kwiatkoski a fair chance to keep his job, come Sept. 9, the two best inside linebackers the Bears have will be on the field together against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Danny Trevathan and Smith could be those guys — and, realistically, they should be those guys. The Bears didn’t draft Smith to sit on the bench against Rodgers in a game against a historic rival they’ve only beat three times in their last 19 meetings. 

The process of getting on the field began Tuesday for Smith. It will continue this week — even if he doesn’t play Saturday in Denver — and then next week leading up to Aug. 25’s preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. When Nagy said he’ll have a good idea in a week or a week and a half if Smith will be ready for Green Bay, that hints at Smith’s role in the Chiefs game being telling for what he’ll do at Lambeau Field 15 days later. 

To figure that out, the Bears are going to put a lot on Smith’s plate. There’s no time for a slow introduction into things. 

And if the team’s evaluation of his skillset, football intelligence and work ethic is correct, he’ll handle that accelerated workload well and, ultimately, earn the starting gig for which he’s been destined since late April. 

“If you take too many baby steps  and you don’t test him enough then you don’t know what his limit is,” Nagy said. “So I think you go ahead  and you throw stuff at him. I think right now we have to make sure physically you don’t overdo it. Mentally he’s fine. We can pull back on that but physically don’t over do it.”