Matt Nagy has never been shy about the role tight ends play in his offense. The evidence is plain to see: Trey Burton is one of the team’s ‘adjusters,’ a label used for the handful of players that the Bears’ offense relies most-heavily on. Drafting Adam Shaheen with the 45th overall pick in the 2017 Draft is another example.
Complimenting one with the other was supposed to open up the offense, with Burton operating as the “U” and Shaheen playing more of the traditional “Y” role. Instead, through the first quarter of the season, the pair has combined for 18 catches and 107 yards. Neither have found the end zone yet, and the longest reception from either of them has been 11 yards.
“I wouldn’t say they’re playing poorly,” Bears’ tight end coach Kevin Gillbride said on Tuesday. “... but I don’t think we’re playing great. I think that we do have improvements to make. But again, I do like where their heads are at. They understand exactly where they need to improve, and how it’s going to help our team win.”
The production needs to improve, but with the additions of Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Davis, and David Montgomery, there are a few more mouths to feed this season.
“We’ve added a lot of weapons as well,” he said. “You’ve got to find that groove as an offense as well. I think as an offense we’re still figuring that out. But there are a lot of people to deliver the football to. And that’s never a bad thing, you know.”
Some of Burton’s issues are still health-related, as he’s working to feel normal again after dealing with groin issues all offseason. Coaches have been pleased in recent weeks with how Burton’s looked in practice, and feel the unit as a whole isn’t far from the production that’s been expected from them.
“It’s hard to really put into quantitative terms,” he said. “But it might just be the speed with which we’re running our routes, the way that we’re getting in and out of breaks, the way we’re finishing on the backside of a zone scheme. The better footwork and pad level on a front side of a play. There’s a number of different things that have improved.”
One byproduct from the unit’s lack of production has been gameday opportunities for J.P. Holtz, who has seen his snap count go (modestly) up in each of the last two games. For a group that’s looking for any type of spark, Holtz’s contributions in both the pass and run game haven’t gone unnoticed. His 16-yard reception against the Raiders was a season-high from a Bears’ tight end.
“Adding JP to that mix has helped,” Gillbride said. “He’s shown up as far as having catches and things of that nature, because of toughness he’s shown in the running game that have now led to open completions. I mean, that’s the reality of it. It really is all interwoven.”
It’s been an undoubtedly disappointing start to the season, and Gillbride has had to spend time in meetings making sure that his guys know how close to breaking through the group is. They’ve addressed their shortcomings as a whole, and through the last couple weeks have spent time focusing on the little moments that could have, as he said, turned a “two-yard run into a 40-yard run.”
“It’s not as far off as everyone’s making this out to be,” he added. “It’s really not.”
Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.
Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.
The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.
When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills.
While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.
And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted.
"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."
His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.
It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.
"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."
This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.
"It's been amazing. Every other aspect of our lives is in complete chaos."@Kelly_Crull caught up with Keila Diehl -- Nico Hoerner's mom -- to see what it's been like for the family since the Cubs called up Hoerner from Double-A on Monday. pic.twitter.com/pMppN8PdqB— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) September 14, 2019
"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."
That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season.
So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020.
The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield.
His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.
Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity.
The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?
“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level.
"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league."
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