Bears NFL Draft Preview: Solving the tight end problem

Bears NFL Draft Preview: Solving the tight end problem Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position-by-position as the Bears approach the 2015 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

Few Bears position areas are as open to question. The tumult surrounding Martellus Bennett came to an end with the Bears dealing the tight end to the New England Patriots for a fourth-round draft choice. But while the deal concluded a choppy Chicago stint for Bennett, it didn’t resolve the Bears’ situation at tight end, one that appeared settled when the Bears signed Bennett for $20 million over four years in 2013. Bennett caught 90 passes in 2014, held out during the 2015 offseason, came back to finish behind only Alshon Jeffery with 53 receptions despite playing just 11 games, finishing the season on IR.

The Bears did re-sign Zach Miller, whose ascension emergence through the 2015 season appeared to be one source of irritation for Bennett because of the shift of focus away from Bennett. Miller finished with a career-best 34 catches, but continued his dubious record of never playing a full 16-game season as he missed the finale with a toe injury.

The loss of Bennett to the offense cannot be overstated. He was a strong in-line blocker as well as a 6-foot-6 target. The Bears have Miller, Rob Housler and Khari Lee, each with individual strengths, but none possessed of the complete skill set that Bennett brought to the position.

Bears draft priority: High

Whether the 2016 draft can provide a straight-up replacement for Bennett is a concern. The Bears made a run at New Orleans tight end Josh Hill but were thwarted when the Saints matched their offer sheet.

“It’s ‘OK,’” said GM Ryan Pace, with the Saints when they landed Hill as a 2013 undrafted free agent, used a 2010 third-rounder on Jimmy Graham and invested a 2002 sixth-rounder on John Gilmore, who spent six years with the Bears. The problem is partly the nature of the college game.

“The tight end, the way offenses are now in college, the tight end is becoming harder to evaluate,” Pace said. “A lot of the time those guys are spread out so you don’t get to see them in-line and blocking as much. So I’d say it’s ‘OK.’”

Not the kind of assessment that says the Bears, or anyone else, will find definitive answers at the position this draft. It will not be the first time.

No tight ends were chosen in the 2015 first round. One (Eric Ebron, 10th) went in the 2014 round and one (Tyler Eifert ,21st) the year before. None are expected to go that early this draft.

Keep an eye on ...

Jerell Adams, South Carolina: Played four years at Alshon Jeffery’s alma mater, 1 TD every 9.4 rec. “Jerell Adams is the most underrated tight end in this class,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

Hunter Henry, Arkansas: Consistent producer in 3 college seasons (116 rec.) with size (6-4, 255). May be best available from a poor crop.

Austin Hooper, Stanford: Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener establish that Cardinal TE’s can work at the next level. Hooper may be a steal in the mid rounds.

Dan Vitale, Northwestern: Listed as a fullback but has  been productive as a receiver, in the Ryan Wetnight mold. Excellent strength if not size (6-0, 240).

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

USA Today

Is Bears “D” in “football shape?” Lacking ability to finish? Fourth-quarter fades raise questions

During the critical fourth-quarter Oakland Raiders drive for a game-winning touchdown, one former Pro Bowl’er and NFL observer remarked to this writer that he was surprised to see a lot of hands on hips and mouth-breathing by members of the Bears defense – two common signs of being gassed.

Critiquing conditioning – or lack of – is problematic the way judging pain tolerance is. And if the Raiders score were an isolated incident, the question likely doesn’t come up.

But something is amiss. While the Bears defense remains among the NFL’s best, at least statistically, a shadow of concern is falling over the defense and its ability to close out games that it has within its reach.

The Bears held fourth-quarter leads over Denver and Oakland and allowed go-ahead touchdowns. They were rescued by Eddy Piñeiro’s 53-yard field goal in the final second. No such rescue in London.

Fully half of the eight touchdowns scored by Bears opponents in 2019 have come in fourth quarters. (The Bears themselves have not scored a single TD in any fourth quarter this season, but that’s a separate discussion.) By contrast, last season the defense did not allow a fourth-quarter touchdown in any of the final five regular-season games.

The temptation is to look only at the numbers, which are in fact positive. Even with the 24 points the Raiders scored against them in London, the Bears ranked second only to New England in scoring stinginess (13.8 ppg.) and fifth in yardage allowed (312 ypg.).

But the Bears have 17 sacks as a team; only three of those have come in fourth quarters.

Opposing quarterbacks have passed at an 81.3 rating in first halves; they are throwing at a 91.4 clip in second halves.

The defense has allowed 16 first downs in first quarters; 21 in seconds; 20 in thirds.

In 2019 fourth quarters, 34 first downs allowed.

Pulling the camera back for a wider view, extending back to include the disturbing 2018 playoff loss:

Vs. Philadelphia
Eagles drive 60 yards in 12 plays and nearly 4 minutes to score game-winning TD with :56 remaining. Cody Parkey’s double-doink overshadows fact that Bears defense forces Eagles into only two third downs and allows winning score on a fourth down.

Vs. Green Bay
With the Chicago offense sputtering all game and in need of a short field, Packers go on a 10-play, 73-yard drive that consumed 6:33 to set up a field goal to go up 10-3 deep in the fourth quarter.

At Denver
Inept Broncos offense scores 11 points in the fourth quarter to overcome a 13-3 Bears lead, driving 62 yards in 12 plays, converting two fourth downs and a two-point conversion. Denver’s second-half drives: 41 yards, 56 yards, 84 yards, 62 yards.

Vs. Washington
Bears build 28-0 lead before one of NFL’s worst offenses scores a pair of largely meaningless second-half TD’s.

Vs. Minnesota Vikings
Drive 92 yards in 13 plays for TD before Bears stiffen to stop two-point PAT and next Minnesota possession.

Vs. Oakland (London)
Raiders win game with 92-yard drive that includes fourth-down conversion on punt fake run despite Bears leaving No. 1 defensive unit in, anticipating fake.

Guess which highly-paid NFL kicker is only making 58% of his field goals?

USA Today

Guess which highly-paid NFL kicker is only making 58% of his field goals?

Remember that time when the Bears tried out like 47 kickers and put them through a wide variety of arbitrary tests all while fan favorite Robby Gould was using the team's desperation as leverage to become the NFL's highest-paid kicker? Classic! 

It's been like three months since those totally-sane summer days, and reader, things have not gone so hot for Gould: 

Meanwhile, Eddy P is not only 8/9 on the season, but is already well on his way to becomming a fan favorite. We're already calling him Eddy P! After 5 games! 

That said, we won't truly know if the Bears made the right decision until Piñeiro beats out several Hall of Famers -- including someone credited for literally starting the NFL -- on the path to winning an offseason bracket-style fan vote.