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).

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.


Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.