Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

USA Today

Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

Most of the focus surrounding the Bears leading up to this week’s NFL Draft has, understandably, been on running backs. The Bears have to find more consistent production out of that unit, which is why general manager Ryan Pace is likely to draft a running back in addition to signing Mike Davis and trading Jordan Howard. 

But those necessary running game improvements don’t need to solely come from Tarik Cohen, Davis and a draft pick. There are other ways to help out the Bears’ running backs. And drafting a tight end may be a start. 

From a purely depth-based point of view, the Bears need to add more tight ends to their roster: Heading into this week’s NFL Draft, only Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker man that position. Drilling down further: Burton is a “U” tight end, Shaheen is a “Y” and Braunecker can play both positions. 

So adding at least one more body to that room seems like an important task for Ryan Pace. But this is an issue that goes just beyond the number of players on the depth chart: The Bears, as an offense, would do well to be more effective when operating out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). 

The issue for the Bears in that personnel grouping began in mid-August when Adam Shaheen hurt his foot in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos, which kept him sidelined until November. Dion Sims took his place and didn’t play well, both as a pass-catcher and run-blocker. When Shaheen came back, he wasn’t 100 percent — and, in his first game back, suffered a concussion against the Minnesota Vikings. 

So here’s how the Bears fared in 12 personnel compared to the league average, via

  Play% Pass% Run% Pass. RTG TD/INT YPA YPC
Bears 17% 49% 51% 85.0 5/3 5.9 3.4
NFL Avg. 17% 49% 51% 101.9 145/53 8.1 4.3

A few things to unpack here: First, the Bears don't necessarily need to use more 12 personnel, they just have to be better when using it. Averaging 3.4 yards per carry with two tight ends ranked fourth worst in the NFL, behind the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. More disappointing, though, is the Bears’ average of 5.9 yards per pass, lower than only the Jacksonville Jaguars (5.3). 

It's worth noting, too, that the league average passer rating is about 10 points higher when running 12 personnel compared to 11 personnel (which the Bears used on nearly two-thirds of their plays in 2018). 

A large part of the Bears' issues, again, were due to the “Y” tight end personnel after Shaheen’s injury. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — relevant here for the Andy Reid connections to Matt Nagy — had much better personnel at tight end (Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz) and ran 12 personnel 28 and 36 percent of the time, respectively. No team used it on a higher percentage of their offensive plays than the Eagles. 

The best-case scenario is the Bears didn’t have the personnel to operate successfully with 12 personnel in 2018, and it doesn’t take much of a deep dive into the film to see why (Sims, who was released this spring, remains unsigned). Nagy and his offensive brain trust likely can scheme some better ways to utilize 12 personnel as well. 

The issue, then, is how the Bears go about improving their tight end personnel. 

The first step would be for Shaheen to not only stay healthy, but to consistently build on the potential the Bears saw in him two years ago. Shaheen has missed 13 games in two seasons and has only been targeted 20 times in the 19 games he’s played. That makes him much more of a projection in 2019 not just from a passing game perspective, but from a blocking one as well. 

“It will be important for him to stay healthy for 16 games, number one, as they talk about your best ability is your availability,” Nagy said. “We've got to have that, that's important. He got better at holding the line of scrimmage. I thought, as a Y tight end, holding the end of the line of scrimmage and the point, he can do that, he's a big guy. Then route running, he's not going to give you the wiggle-wiggle that some of the U tight ends do. But he's a bigger type person. They should be able to play faster this year because they know where they're going.”

Still, given that projecting Shaheen isn’t an exact science, the Bears should target a tight end at some point in this year’s draft, specifically someone who can play that “Y” position. While the Bears are confident in Braunecker’s ability to play both tight end positions — important given how poorly the offense responded to losing Trey Burton prior to losing to the Eagles in the playoffs — drafting someone who can play the “Y” would seem like a smart move. 

The Bears aren’t going to land one of the clear-cut two best tight ends in this year’s draft — Iowa’s duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — but there are a handful of tight ends who could interest the Bears in the middle rounds of the draft. San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (No. 95 on Pro Football Focus’ top 250) profiles as someone with the flexibility to play both tight end positions; Stanford’s Kaden Smith comes from the new “Tight End U” and could be had later in the draft. Those are just two names; perhaps it’s better to wait until after the Bears pick a tight end (if they do at all) to project how they could fit within the offense. 

Rookie tight ends rarely make significant impacts, especially those who fall to the middle rounds of the draft. But even if the Bears can improve blocking-wise from 12 personnel, that would have a positive impact on their ability to run the ball. 

And running the ball better means more opportunities for play action, which means more opportunities for open throws, which means more opportunities for Mitch Trubisky to lead scoring drives, which means more points. Everything works together — which is how drafting a tight end could help the Bears push toward the overall goal of scoring more points. 

It was too little, too late for the Bears on Sunday – just like it's been all season

It was too little, too late for the Bears on Sunday – just like it's been all season

Ultimately, the Bears’ loss to Green Bay on Sunday afternoon ended the same way their 2019 season will: with too little, too late. After coming up one yard short in a 21-13 loss, they now have less than a 1% chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Playoff Predictions. 

“Really big picture is that we don’t get the win,” Matt Nagy said. “We could have played better in really all three phases. You could point to a lot of different things, but I’m going to stay positive with our guys because I appreciate their fight.” 

The loss played out like much of their season, which started with Super Bowl aspirations, has: with the offense spending the entirety of the first half searching for any type of spark. They went into the locker room with three points and 115 net yards of offense – 36 on the ground and 79 through the air. They were 0-1 in the red zone, committed two penalties, and started drives deep in their own territory. Tarik Cohen had the same amount of receptions (3) as Anthony Miller (2) and Allen Robinson (1) combined. It was the familiar brand of disjointed, dysfunctional offense that’s held them back countless times throughout the once-promising campaign. 

“We’ve felt that in each of our games,” Cohen said after the loss. “The offense has kind of taken too long to get things rolling. It’s kind of been the same thing. If you magnify it with the season, we took too long to get everything going in our season.” 

“I think we had some penalties, we had some times we didn’t capitalize on first down,” Allen Robinson added. “I thought the first possession, we started off 2nd-and-4, but I think we didn’t keep that up over the course of the game.”  

Then, like clockwork, the Bears showed up in the second half and looked like a team that had won three straight games and had their sights firmly set on a playoff push. After finishing the first half with nine yards, Allen Robinson had eight catches for 116 yards in the final 30 minutes; he now has over 1,000 yards for only the second time in his career. Anthony Miller hauled in seven more balls for 79 yards, including the Bears’ only touchdown against Green Bay all season. The running game was abandoned in the second half, which is about the only place this comparison fails (though when you’re down 21-3 late in the game, can you really blame them?). 

It all culminated on the Bears’ final play of the game, an intricate prayer full of weaves and backwards passes that, for about nine yards, looked like the type of miraculous, season-saving touchdown that can breath new life into a team. Instead, Jesper Horsted – who was a distant practice squad footnote when these teams first met in Week 1 – couldn’t find Allen Robinson with one final lateral, and now the Bears are stuck asking what-if. Sound familiar?

“I had my eyes on the inside where the ball was coming from,” Horsted explained. “I was focused on would I be running with it or blocking, and then I got the ball, and the first thing I looked downfield and I saw a little bit of daylight, but I knew that I had a guy on the outside.”

“In hindsight I should have gotten there a little bit earlier, but it was moving quickly and it was a little bit hard to see exactly what was going on to the right when I was focusing on straight and left.” 

There figures to be a lot of hindsight over the Bears’ next two weeks. If they somehow manage to survive the night with their playoff hopes still on life support, it doesn’t get any easier. They’ll need to win out, obviously, and need a 0-4 performance from the Vikings and Rams too. Minnesota has Green Bay (11-3) and the Bears (7-7), while Los Angeles plays Seattle (11-3) and … Arizona (3-9-1). The Bears weren’t interested in speculating much on the fateful late-afternoon games that they’ll all be watching on the flight (bus?) home, but there was a noticeable sense in the Lambeau Field away locker room that reality had begun setting in. 

“It’s always disappointing to not meet your expectations,” Akiem Hicks said. “I think, for us, as a group, we have to be able to say that we finished playing the rest of the season the way that we played that streak where we won three games in a row. Just keep fighting. I think that’s the character of this team anyways, just to never lay down. You saw it out there today …”

"It's a lesson to our team that every game matters," Prince Amukamara added. "If we had taken care of business earlier, we wouldn't be in this position." 

Bears defense whiffs on chance to keep playoff hopes alive vs. Packers

Bears defense whiffs on chance to keep playoff hopes alive vs. Packers

The Chicago Bears' 2019 season likely came to an end Sunday following their 21-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and while the blame for the defeat can be shared equally between the offense and defense's failures, untimely mistakes by the Bears' defense cost the team in big moments.

Take this missed tackle by cornerback Prince Amukamara, for example, which occurred with 12:50 left to play in the third quarter:

"Tackles are want-tos," former Bears linebacker and NBC Sports Chicago's Lance Briggs said on The Football Aftershow. "You gotta want to do it. You gotta be willing to do it. Missed tackles in games like that gets guys cussed out.

"It’s gotten me cussed out. Mike Brown has been quick to cuss me out. Brian [Urlacher]. This guy (pointing to Alex Brown) and you definitely know I’ve cussed this guy out for some plays. And the problem with that, Alex was sacrificing on a play but when your competitive bloods are flowing, you want to keep getting more out of your teammates."

Matt Nagy tried to dismiss any concerns over the team's effort after the game and said the poor tackling performance wasn't due to a lack of hustle.

"I don’t see how you can make an excuse for missed tackles," Alex Brown said. "I don’t understand that, if a guy is in position to make a tackle you gotta make it.

"Just go to the Prince play, that was a huge missed tackle there and past that Eddie Jackson’s gotta get him down. Okay, Prince missed a tackle, now Eddie gotta get him down on the two or three-yard line, get him down so the defense can come out and play another play. You just can’t concede that play."

Especially not in a do-or-die game, which is how all three of Chicago's remaining contests were dubbed entering Week 15.

Now 7-7, it appears safe to close the book on the 2019 season. Maybe Sunday's poor tackling performance is a fitting end to a year that was supposed to be highlighted by a championship-caliber defense.

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