Trey Burton

Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

Here's how the Bears can fix their tight end problem in NFL free agency, draft

The Bears have to get better at tight end.

Last year, their guys at the spot combined for 46 catches, 422 yards and two touchdowns — worse production than 12 individual tight ends had around the league in 2019 (yikes).

So, how should Ryan Pace go about fixing the most glaring weakness on his roster?

Presenting a three-part plan to beef up Clancy Barone's tight end room: 

1. Hang in with Mr. Hooper

The Falcons' Austin Hooper is the best fit for what the Bears need. He’s a highly productive receiver (146 catches, 1,447 yards, 10 TDs the last two years) who has the flexibility to play both the “U” (slot) and “Y” (in-line) tight end positions in Nagy’s offense. He’s never graded as a top-end blocker but the Bears like what Demetrius Harris, who they signed earlier this month, can do in that space. 

Because of those qualities, and that he’s only 25, Hooper is going to get paid on the open market. Spotrac estimates a five-year contract worth about $50 million. It wouldn’t be surprising if he gets more. Either way, expect Hooper to be the NFL’s top-paid tight end some time in mid-March. 

The Bears could make the money work on Hooper, so long as they don’t enter some sort of ludicrous bidding war. A four or five-year deal could be a bit backloaded to soften the cap hit in 2020, especially with Trey Burton still on the roster (more on that shortly). 

If Hooper’s price gets driven to the point where he’s not worth the money (like more than $12 million per year, perhaps), the Bears should train their focus on a guy willing to sign a shorter-term deal. Eric Ebron makes sense, even if he’s known for dropping too many passes. He’s more of a “U” who could be good Burton insurance, while someone like the 34-year-old Darren Fells could be a cheap option at the “Y.” 

This does not mean targeting someone like Hunter Henry or Tyler Eifert, players with varying levels of upside but significant durability concerns. 

The benefit of a free agent on a shorter contract is that the Bears would improve their tight end room in 2020 and won’t need a draft pick to immediately contribute. But Hooper is still the best option here as long as the price is right. 

2. Don’t count on Trey Burton but don’t count him out. 

Burton’s contract is built to keep him in Chicago in 2020. The Bears would have to eat $7.5 million in dead cap while only saving a little over $1 million if they were to release him. That’s not worth it right now, even if Burton was truly awful last season.

“Our hope is that we finally kinda solved the issue and that there’s an upward trajectory now with him,” Pace said of Burton’s offseason hip surgery. “That’s our hope.”

The Bears, though, should view whatever they get out of Burton as a bonus. He caught 54 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns in 2018; even half of that would be valuable in 2020. 

Training camp should essentially be a tryout for Burton. If he’s still not himself a year and a half after this injury stuff started, then the Bears could cut him. But that’s a move to be made in late August, not late February. 

And if Burton is healthy and looks like himself again? That’s great and it wouldn’t be a problem to fit him with Hooper, Ebron, Harris, draft picks, etc. 

RELATED: A sense of urgency could lead Bears to change quarterbacks

3. Draft a tight end but don’t view him as *the* solution.

Expecting Cole Kmet, Brycen Hopkins or Adam Trautman to make an immediate, significant impact would be a foolish bet for a team that can’t afford to whiff on this position again in 2020. 

This is less a commentary on their NFL potential and more an argument based on history. Tight end is a hard position to play in Year 1, as it requires a load of responsibilities and physical play that rookies often struggle to carry.  

Over the last decade, there have been 29 tight ends picked in the first two rounds of an NFL draft. Their numbers, on average, in their rookie years: 44 targets, 27 catches, 306 yards and three touchdowns. 

So, Adam Shaheen’s rookie year (12 catches, 127 yards, three touchdowns) is far closer to the norm than Rob Gronkowski’s (42 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns). 

That does not mean Pace shouldn’t draft a tight end. But it can’t be his only solution. 

The depth chart

At the Y:

1. Austin Hooper
2. Demetrius Harris
3. Ben Braunecker/JP Holtz

At the U:

1. Trey Burton
2. TBD draft pick
3. Ben Braunecker/Jesper Horsted

This means releasing Shaheen, which would save a little over $1 million in cap space, and letting Braunecker, Holtz and Horsted battle for one spot on the roster (Braunecker could also be released to free up some cap space). 

The Bears can win with that depth chart. It’ll require Pace to pour money and draft capital into a position that he’s, well, already poured money (with Burton) and draft capital (with Shaheen) into. But a fix here would be a massive boon to Nagy's offense and whoever winds up playing quarterback in 2020.

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Which cuts should the Bears make to free up cap space for free agency?

Which cuts should the Bears make to free up cap space for free agency?

With less than a month until the NFL’s free agency period begins, the Bears have a paucity of cap space — a little under $15 million, per the NFLPA’s public report. They also have significant needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, as well as quarterback. 

Add in the need for changes coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, and the Bears will have some difficult decisions ahead as Ryan Pace re-tools his 2020 roster.

The Bears have 10 players who, by cutting or extending them, would net at least $1 million in 2020 salary cap savings (this list does not include Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, who could net cap savings but aren't going anywhere and also aren't due for extensions). Some of the decisions to cut these players will not be difficult; others will be. A look at these players, and what the Bears’ verdict on each should be (all cap savings figures are via Spotrac):

Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (potential cap savings: $13.222 million)

The case for cutting: Floyd’s fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only and does not carry any dead money, so the Bears could nearly double their cap space without any monetary drawbacks. Floyd only had three sacks in 2019, his fourth year in the NFL, and has not made good on his top-10-picked upside as a fearsome speed rusher. His sack totals have decreased every year he’s been in the league despite playing full 16-game seasons in 2018 and 2019. 

The case for keeping: Pace has valued Floyd’s versatility from the day he drafted him, and the Bears still appreciate the things the former No. 9 overall pick can do that don’t involve rushing the passer. He’s good against the run and can be trusted to drop into coverage, and to his credit hasn’t missed a game since a freak season-ending knee injury in 2017. 

The verdict: The Bears could present Floyd with an ultimatum to either sign a contract extension — one which lowers his cap hit for 2020 but doesn’t provide significant guarantees after, say, 2021 — or be released. Floyd wouldn’t command $13 million per year on a deep open market headlined by Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler Jr. and (possibly) Yannick Ngakoue. While he does do some important things in a 3-4 defense, his inability to win one-on-one matchups while Khalil Mack is double- and triple-teamed make that $13.222 million figure feel too high. If he’s not interested in an extension and wants to bet on himself in 2020, the Bears can get cheaper and better here. 

Wide receiver Allen Robinson (potential cap savings: $13 million)

The case for cutting: There is none. Robinson was one of the select few players on the 2019 Bears to improve off his 2018 season, and he’s a critically important piece for the Bears’ efforts to improve their offense in 2020. 

The case for keeping: The Bears should sign Robinson to a contract extension to not only lock him up for the next few years, but to lower his 2020 cap hit from its current $15 million figure. Just spitballing here: How about a four-year, $68 million offer with over half the money guaranteed? The 26-year-old Robinson earned a rich extension based on what he’s done both on the field and off the field since coming to Chicago two years ago. 

The verdict: Signing Robinson to an extension should be the Bears’ No. 1 priority before they begin exploring other ways to create cap space in 2020. 

Cornerback Prince Amukamara (potential cap savings: $9 million)

The case for cutting: That’s a lot of money to be saved for a guy who hasn't had an interception in three of his last four seasons. Amukamara turns 30 in June and may not be a candidate for an extension based on his age. Replacing him with a cheaper free agent and a draft pick would make sense. 

The case for keeping: Amukamara’s ability to cleanly play press coverage is not an easily-replaceable trait. He committed only one penalty after Week 3 of 2019, and while he doesn’t make game-wrecking plays, his skills allow Chuck Pagano to do some different things with his coverages and blitzes. The Bears' defense likely will be worse off without Amukamara. 

The verdict: Amukamara is the player the Bears should have the most difficult time cutting or keeping. He’s an important voice in the locker room as a former Super Bowl winner, and his ability to avoid being penalized while playing physical coverage is valuable in a league that can over-emphasize pass interference flags. But: the Bears could plug two holes with the cap savings generated by releasing Amukamara, and his contract was designed with the possibility of releasing him before 2020 in mind. It'd be a tough, but reasonable, decision. 

Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (potential cap savings: $4.75 million)

The case for cutting: Patterson didn’t become the explosive offensive weapon the Bears imagined he could be a year ago. He averaged 6.6 yards on his 28 touches — both the second-lowest numbers in his seven-year career — and played fewer than 10 offensive snaps in seven of 16 games. His special teams play was outstanding, but as Matt Nagy said after the Bears signed him last March: “If we were bringing him here just to return kicks … I mean, I'd be lying to you.”

The case for keeping: Patterson was an All-Pro kick returner, and his special teams impact extended beyond that into some standout play in punt coverage. His average of 29.5 yards per kick return ranked second in the NFL, and he had a 102-yard return score against the New Orleans Saints in Week 7. With special teams ace Sherrick McManis a free agent, the Bears may not want to drain reliable talent from Chris Tabor’s special teams units. 

The verdict: If signing a, say, starting safety like Vonn Bell means needing to cut Patterson, it’s a move the Bears should make. But he’s a guy who does impact games, and if the Bears can keep him without taking away from the starters they need to sign, they should do it. 

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (potential cap savings: $4.5 million)

The case for cutting: Gabriel missed seven games due to a pair of concussions in 2019 and has limited additional upside, averaging 7.4 yards per target in each of his last three seasons. He’s shown flashes as a deep threat, but his average of 2.7 yards after catch per reception would’ve ranked 148 out of 155 qualified receivers had he played enough in 2019. Not all of that is his fault, with quarterback and scheme issues diminishing his effectiveness, but $4.5 million could be used elsewhere. 

The case for keeping: Gabriel was a sneakily-effective weapon in 2018 as someone who could make touch catches at the sticks and haul in the occasional deep ball. If healthy, he’s a reliable No. 3 or No. 4 target in an offense, and he does have a good rapport with Mitch Trubisky — which does matter if Trubisky still is the starter in 2020. 

The verdict: Cutting Gabriel would mean needing to find a speed threat while also relying on 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley and/or 2018 seventh-round pick Javon Wims more within the offense, but saving $4.5 million in cap space for a guy who did miss nearly half of last season feels too enticing for the Bears to pass up. 

Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (potential cap savings: $2.918 million)

The case for cutting: Only four offensive linemen committed more penalties than Leno’s 13 in 2019, while he’s underrated as a pass blocker he hasn’t been a solution for the Bears’ run blocking woes. 

The case for keeping: Leno carries a dead cap figure of $7.376 million, and it’d be difficult for the Bears to find a better player than him with their meager amount of cap space, other needs on the roster and lack of draft capital. Leno is still only 28, is remarkably durable and currently has the 17th lowest cap hit among left tackles in 2020. 

The verdict: There’s no reason for the Bears to move on from Leno in 2020. He stays. 

Punter Pat O’Donnell (potential cap savings: $1.75 million)

The case for cutting: That figure may not seem like much, but for a cap-strapped team like the Bears swapping O’Donnell for a young, league-minimum punter might make sense. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus rated O’Donnell as the NFL’s second-worst punter in 2020. 

The case for keeping: If other cuts are made elsewhere, the Bears may not need to pinch pennies here. Tabor’s internal evaluation of O’Donnell may not match up with PFF’s, too, and the Bears may not want to create uncertainty at an otherwise-stable position. 

The verdict: It may be easier said than done to cut O’Donnell and find an undrafted free agent to punt for six figures in 2020, but it’s a path the Bears should try — especially if it means they can hang on to someone like Patterson. 

Tight end Ben Braunecker (potential cap savings: $1.468 million) 

The case for cutting: Braunecker has 13 receptions over his four years with the Bears and landed on injured reserve with a concussion last year. The Bears' overhaul at tight end began this week with the reported signing of Demetrius Harris, who might be a better version of Braunecker: A guy who can play both the "U" and "Y" while contributing on special teams. 

The case for keeping: As with Patterson, cutting an important special teams player while losing someone like McManis feels a little risky, especially with Braunecker’s 2020 cap hit coming in well under $2 million. If he's the Bears’ fourth or fifth tight end, that’s a good spot for someone who knows the offense and does well to contribute on special teams. 

The verdict: If the Bears' tight end depth chart has Trey Burton, a different No. 1 at the "Y," Harris, J.P. Holtz and a draft pick, Braunecker could be squeezed out of a roster spot. But he's worth keeping around through OTAs and training camp and should not be among the Bears' pre-free agency cuts. 

Tight end Adam Shaheen (potential cap savings: $1.271 million)

The case for cutting: Shaheen has not lived up to his hyperbolic “Baby Gronk” potential, catching just nine passes for 74 yards in 2019 before being shut down due to ineffectiveness and then injury halfway through the season. The writing has been on the wall for Shaheen to be released since he was a healthy scratch last November. 

The case for keeping: He’s cheap? Pace’s end-of-season comment about liking what he’s seen from Shaheen when he’s played was disingenuous at best and misguided at worst. If the Bears really want to see if he can still make good on his upside, he's inexpensive enough to keep around through the offseason program and training camp, but Pace cannot approach 2020 counting on Shaheen to contribute. 

The verdict: The Bears need to find multiple new tight ends over the next two and a half months, and won’t have a place on the roster for Shaheen. Investing his cap savings into a different backup tight end, or some depth at safety or inside linebacker, would be a better use of those funds. 

Tight end Trey Burton (potential cap savings: $1.05 million)

The case for cutting: Burton’s 2019 was a disaster, with the “U” tight end neither healthy nor effective during his second year with the Bears. The Bears cannot afford to have a tight end take up $8.55 million in cap space to average 3.5 yards per target, as Burton did in eight games last year. The position Burton plays is pivotal for the health of Nagy’s offense, and an upgrade there is necessary. 

The case for keeping: A shade over $1 million — with $7.5 million in dead cap — is not enough to justify releasing a guy who, in 2018, was a solid part of the Bears’ offense. The Bears’ best bet is to see if Burton is healthy in training camp before making a decision on his future with the team. Better depth behind him is a must, but he could still be part of the solution to the Bears’ tight end woes. 

The verdict: Keep Burton around and, if he’s not healthy or effective by Labor Day weekend, think about releasing him them. But the money says the Bears need to give Burton another chance this summer, even if they also go out and sign someone like Eric Ebron to also play the "U." 

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Pro Football Focus predicts Colts TE Eric Ebron to Bears

Pro Football Focus predicts Colts TE Eric Ebron to Bears

Now that Greg Olsen is spoken for by the Seahawks, the Bears must continue their search for an upgrade at tight end. Pro Football Focus has released their predictions for the top 50 free agents this offseason and they suspect the Bears will sign former Colts' TE Eric Ebron.

The argument put forward by PFF is solid. With both Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen underperforming in 2019, the Bears are desperate for anyone with experience at TE. Enter Ebron, who has been a consistent receiver putting up grades between 69.4 and 71.4 over the past four years of his career. During his first season in Indianapolis in 2018, Ebron scored 14 touchdowns. His 2019 season was cut short due to an ankle injury, with him scoring three touchdowns and 31 catches in 11 games. Consistency has been the biggest issue for the Bears offense, making Ebron an attractive prospect for Chicago. 

PPF projects the Bears will sign him to a 3-year, $7.5 million per year contract ($14 million guaranteed).

This isn’t the first time the 2018 Pro-Bowler has been connected to the Bears. Eagle-eyed fans caught Ebron interacting with Akiem Hicks and Tarik Cohen on Twitter earlier this year, with many speculating the current Bears’ players were encouraging Ebron to join them at Soldier Field in 2020. 

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