Jesper Horsted

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

J.P. Holtz provides spark Bears have been missing at tight end

Trey Burton's nagging injuries and Adam Shaheen's lack of development created a tight end crisis for the Bears through the first half of the 2019 season, but with Burton on injured reserve and Shaheen seemingly no longer in the team's plans, someone had to rise from the ashes and take over the starting job.

Enter J.P. Holtz, the 26-year-old unknown commodity whose under-the-radar signing with the Bears was hardly noticed by the fanbase. GM Ryan Pace claimed Holtz off waivers on Sept. 11 after a brief stint with the Washington Redskins, where he spent 2018 and the start of 2019 bouncing between the practice squad and active roster.

Holtz initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh. He signed with the Browns in May 2016 and spent the end of that season on Cleveland's practice squad. 

Needless to say, Holtz's journey to the Bears' starting lineup has been anything but traditional. But in Week 14's game against the Dallas Cowboys, he provided the Bears' offense with its first legitimately productive game at tight end. Holtz finished Thursday's game with three catches for 56 yards and had the longest catch of any Bears receiver (30 yards). He was the highest-graded player on Chicago's offense, per Pro Football Focus. His 79.2 grade was better than Burton's top mark in 2019 (67.6) and would've qualified as Burton's third-best game of 2018, too. 

Holtz out-snapped fellow tight end Jesper Horsted, 37-31, and appears to have taken a slight lead over Horsted for reps moving forward. That said, both players have surprisingly looked like better fits for what Matt Nagy wants to do in his offense than either Burton or Shaheen. Horsted had four catches for 36 yards on Thursday.

Holtz and Horsted combined for seven catches and 92 yards. That's more yards in one game than Burton managed in the eight games he played, total.

It would be unfair to expect similar production from Holtz from here on out considering he was never a pass-catcher at any point in his career. In college, Holtz never topped more than 24 catches in a season and recorded a career-high 350 yards his senior year. But we've seen players' roles change once they get to the NFL before. Take 49ers superstar George Kittle, for example. His career-high in receiving yards at Iowa was just 314. We know what kind of weapon he's turned into as a pro.

No, Holtz isn't the next Kittle. But he doesn't have to be. He just has to be the guy we saw Thursday night who made plays for an offense desperate for a playmaking tight end.

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Ryan Pace says Bears see upside in undrafted rookie TE Jesper Horsted

Ryan Pace says Bears see upside in undrafted rookie TE Jesper Horsted

The Bears have received virtually no production from the tight end position in 2019, which is especially disappointing considering the high expectations that came with Trey Burton's signing in 2018.

Burton's been injured throughout the offseason and into the 2019 regular season culminating with him being sent to injured reserve this week. His year ends with just 14 catches for 84 yards and zero touchdowns. And while not every team calls for its tight end to be a big piece of the offense's passing game, Matt Nagy's system requires a playmaker at that spot.

It's just one of many reasons why Mitch Trubisky has regressed in Year 3.

Burton's struggles and injuries have opened the door for former Princeton wide receiver-turned-tight end, Jesper Horsted, who was promoted to the Bears' active roster after spending the first 11 weeks on the practice squad. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in May.

General manager Ryan Pace spoke about Horsetd's upside in his weekly radio spot on WBBM Newsradio.

“With Jesper, I think if you go back and look, he was highly productive in college as a receiver," Pace said. "He went undrafted, didn’t get signed after the draft, came here as a rookie minicamp tryout, converted to tight end and he impressed.

"He’s put on the necessary weight. He’s maintained his speed and quickness. He’s made significant progress in that conversion. He’s still a work-in-progress, but we just see a lot of upside with him.”

Horsted became a fan-favorite during the preseason when he flashed impressive hands and body control. He made a strong final impression on Pace and the front office with five catches for 82 yards and a touchdown in Chicago's preseason finale against the Titans.

With not much left to play for in 2019, players like Horsted have a chance to build a strong foundation for a bigger role in 2020. 

Bears Week 12 inactives: As expected, Mitch Trubisky will play against Giants

USA Today

Bears Week 12 inactives: As expected, Mitch Trubisky will play against Giants

The Bears' Week 12 inactive list is out, and you're not in for any mid-morning surprises: 

As expected, Mitch Trubisky is fully healthy and will be the starter on Sunday afternoon. 

The only other bit of notable news is Sowell's inclusion on the list, but even that's not all that surprising given the mid-week promotion of rookie tight end Jesper Horsted. Horsted's been on the practice squad all season but figures to play a decent percentage of snaps as the Bears' 'U' tight end. 

Bears-Giants kicks off at 12 p.m. CT.