J.P. Holtz

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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How will the Bears replace Trey Burton and, potentially, David Montgomery against the Rams?

How will the Bears replace Trey Burton and, potentially, David Montgomery against the Rams?

The Bears will be without tight ends Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen against the Los Angeles Rams, and running back David Montgomery will be a gametime decision prior to Sunday night’s contest in California. 

Burton missed all three of the Bears’ practices this week with a calf injury suffered at the end of the Bears’ win over the Detroit Lions last week, while Shaheen popped up on the injury report with a foot issue and missed both Thursday and Friday’s practices. Montgomery rolled his ankle during practice Wednesday, was held out of Thursday’s practice and then returned in a limited fashion on Friday. 

The upshot here is the Bears may need to take a deep dive into their depth at tight end and running back just to staff those positions for a game they can’t afford to lose. The emphasis, though, is on the word “may.” 

Coach Matt Nagy has frequently referred to the “U” tight end position — which Burton plays — as an important “adjuster” in his offense. But he indicated the Bears could look at other positions to be that “adjuster,” meaning the Bears wouldn’t necessarily need to lean on, say, current practice squad tight end Jesper Horsted on Sunday. 

The Bears were already without Shaheen last weekend when they decided to make him a healthy scratch on gameday, and had Ben Braunecker and J.P. Holtz take over the 2017 second-round pick’s snaps as an in-line (“Y”) tight end. Braunecker has the flexibility to step in for Burton at the “U,” so the Bears could wind up feeling okay about having him and Holtz as their two primary tight ends on Sunday. Bradley Sowell is on the roster, too, and could be active for the first time since Week 2 a backup "Y." 

Meaning: Those waiting for Horsted to get a shot two and a half months after his impressive preseason ended may be left wanting. 

“Jesper’s just now learning the position,” tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said this week, while also praising his work ethic and desire to improve. 
So the best bet here is Horsted gets called up to the active roster but isn’t a significant part of the Bears’ gameplan on Sunday. Notably, though, Nagy did not dismiss the idea of placing Burton on injured reserve — which would end his season — when asked on Friday. 

“It’s been frustrating for Trey,” Nagy said. “You can understand that. And it has been frustrating for us, which you can understand that as well. They’ll be some decisions that we’ve got to collaborate — we’ve got to get together and just talk it through and see what’s best for him and what’s best for us and then decide on that.”

If Burton were to go on injured reserve, it would give Horsted a better chance to be evaluated in 2019 with an eye on if he could contribute in 2020. 

The same goes for Ryan Nall, the second-year undrafted free agent who could play his first regular season snaps on offense if Montgomery is not able to go on Sunday. But the Bears aren’t at the point of looking ahead of 2020 yet, not while they still have a chance — albeit a small one — of reaching the playoffs. 

So instead of Nall, that could mean the Bears use Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson as their primary running backs, even if neither is prototypical at the position. 

“There's definite opportunities there (for Patterson),” Nagy said. “Again, there's some flexibility in our roster and the versatility that we have. It can sometimes make it a little bit difficult as a play-caller, as a schemer as to what you want to do, but when things like this come up out of nowhere and they're unfortunate, you just have to be able to not flinch.”

(As an aside: The Bears still made the correct call in releasing veteran Mike Davis last week, as doing so indicates they believe they’ll receive a compensatory draft pick in 2020 through the league’s complex, secretive formula.)

The Bears are 4-5 and have a greater than zero percent chance of making the playoffs (Football Outsiders has it at 3.6 percent entering the weekend). Once this team’s hopes in 2019 are extinguished, then it’ll be time for them to start looking at players like Horsted and Nall who haven’t got a chance this year but perhaps could in 2020. 

But they’re not there yet, meaning it’s not yet to time start throwing undrafted free agents on the field to see what they can do. 

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Bears add tight end depth, claim J.P. Holtz off waivers

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USA Today

Bears add tight end depth, claim J.P. Holtz off waivers

The Bears claimed tight end J.P. Holtz, who was released by Washington this week, and waived defensive lineman Abdullah Anderson on Wednesday, adding some depth to their tight end room. 

The 26-year-old Holtz played in his first NFL game on Sunday, when Washington promoted him from its practice squad to active roster with tight end Jordan Reed out. Holtz played 14 special teams snaps but did not play on offense. 

The 6-foot-3, 255 pound Pitt alum last played in college in 2015, finishing his career with the Panthers with 81 catches for 931 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was on practice squads for the Cleveland Browns and Washington from 2016-2018. 

Holtz caught five passes for 63 yards during preseason play this year, and has 10 catches for 89 yards with one touchdown in 15 career preseason games. 

The Bears kept four tight ends on their initial 53-man roster, though were without Trey Burton (groin) for their season opener last Thursday. Unless the Bears were to view Holtz as a better in-line blocking option than converted tackle Bradley Sowell, their best-case scenario is having him be inactive on Sunday — meaning Burton would be back in the lineup. 

If Burton is inactive, expect Holtz to be active on Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Coach Matt Nagy reiterated that Burton — who did practice Wednesday — remains day-to-day. 

“We’ll just see how he goes, how he is,” Nagy said. “I mean, in Trey’s case, just so as we go here, I cannot be any more honest or forthcoming on Trey Burton. I mean it. I’m telling you. Everything I’ve got, I’m telling you. We’re going to see how he does. If he does good, let’s see how he does the next day. And then if we get to it and we feel like he’s good to go, we all collaborate on it, let’s go. If we don’t, then we’re not.”

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