In theory, Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen should have worked.
Burton fits the mold of what Nagy's precious "U" tight ends should do perfectly, and Shaheen earned the nickname 'Baby Gronk' during his rookie training camp for a reason. Having an uber-talented duo of pass catching tight ends is the modern NFL's white whale, and it was only a couple of seasons ago when that seemed like the Bears' reality.
The worst part about reality, of course, is how often it ends up just getting in the way. For Ryan Pace and the Bears, that parade was rained on sometime in mid-April, when the team announced that it had cut Trey Burton.
"I think as we took a full evaluation of our roster after free agency and factored everything in, that was the best decision for us," Pace told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday morning. "And we wish him nothing but the best of luck. He had a good first year for us, but unfortunately for him and for us, the injuries kind of added up. We just felt at this time that was the best course of action for our team."
Technically, it's true that Burton had a strong season in 2018. He started in more than one game for the first time in his career, setting career-highs in catches (54), yards (569) and touchdowns (6) along the way. In reality, though, he finished 10th, 13th, and fourth (tied with three others) in those categories league-wide. Then came 2019, and with it a rash of injuries. Burton ended up appearing in only eight games, none of which he was particularly impactful in.
A failed physical coupled with a 2020 cap hit ($8.5 million) that wasn't far off from the game's elite tight ends – players like Hunter Henry ($10.6), Travis Kelce ($11.2), and Zach Ertz ($12.4) – made the Bears realize that paying a player close-to-elite money for far-from-elite production just wasn't going to work.
“I just think when we took a complete picture of our whole roster and kind of stepped back and looked at everything – and now where we are in that tight end room, and what we can do to help us from a financial standpoint, as well – to be honest, all those factors go into it," Pace added. "It’s a multiple of things that we discussed, and we just made the decision that was best for us overall.”
That tight end room still includes Shaheen – at least for now. A convincing argument could be made that Shaheen's Bears tenure has been even more disappointing than Burton's was. And if random Twitter rumblings are to be believed, he may not be in Chicago for much longer:
More players available...Malik Hooker, Indy, PJ Hall Oakland, Rasul Douglas Phila, Adam Sheehan, Chicago. It's going to be a fun week.— Michael Lombardi (@mlombardiNFL) April 21, 2020
The Bears didn't need a soft reboot at tight end; they needed a hard reset. Nagy's system predicates too much on the success of that postition to see out lingering injuries or slowly developing prospects out of Division II. It's why they're rolling the dice on Jimmy Graham, and it's why they're likely to attack the position in this weekend's draft. In theory, a healed Burton and motived Shaheen could have turned some corners in 2020. In reality, Pace and Nagy never had the time to wait and see.
"I know we have a lot of tight ends, and we have to filter through that," Pace said. "But there are some guys in that tight end room that are very intriguing and interesting for us. But I think with the adding of Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris, I think that helps fortify that group a bit. But also it’s a good tight end draft, so if there are guys there that we like, we’d consider it."