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 SharpFootballStats.com:
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.