Trey Burton

The “other” Trey Burton – new TE offers opportunities but also challenges for new Bears offense

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USA TODAY

The “other” Trey Burton – new TE offers opportunities but also challenges for new Bears offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The Bears made Trey Burton a priority target in 2018 free agency, with a plan. The fifth-year tight end had toiled in the long shadows of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz with the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles, and Burton was deemed an ideal fit in the offense of incoming Bears coach Matt Nagy when he and GM Ryan Pace talked on the flight back to Chicago after his hiring. The objective centered around the “U” (mobile) tight-end role with which Nagy and coach Andy Reid had used with great success in the person of Travis Kelce in the Kansas City Chiefs offense.
 
Pace and the Bears went all-in and then some, signing Burton to a four-year contract topping out at $32 million and including $18 million guaranteed. They did this at the tight-end position in addition to choosing to keep Dion Sims at $6 million for 2018 and re-signing Daniel Brown for $925,000 for one year, on top of having in place 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen. The commitment to the critical tight-end role in Nagy’s iteration of the West Coast offense was apparent.
 
But things are rarely that simple.
 
Because along with the pass-catching prowess that drew the Bears to Burton (five TDs in 23 catches in 2017, six TDs over his last 60 receptions) comes an obvious shortcoming in an area typically critical at the tight-end position: blocking.
 
Burton the receiver has delivered as expected throughout the first week of training camp, and on Thursday, catching passes in all areas of the field, ranging from a deep completion from quarterback Mitch Trubisky to a quick hitter underneath the coverage.
 
But Burton was soundly thrashed in one-on-one pass blocking drills on Thursday, bull-rushed by linebacker Isaiah Irving and whiffing against an arm-over move by linebacker Kylie Fitts on separate reps. And in full-pad sessions, he was out-physicaled at the point of attack in run blocking, which is an alien experience for an athlete who served as a quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and on kick coverage at Florida. Burton made the Eagles’ roster in 2014 as an undrafted free agent, listed as a tight end but who had five carries as a running back and zero receptions as anything.
 
The problem with a position player with a gaping void in his skillset is that his presence in the lineup limits play-calling options and execution. Size does matter: Kelce is 6-5, 260 pounds; Celek, 6-5, 250; Ertz, 6-4, 255. Shaheen (270), Sims (271) and even Brown (247 pounds) or Ben Braunecker (252) place some mass at the position.
 
Burton (235) does not, and he calls to mind a Ryan Wetnight (235) catching as many as 46 passes in a season but being rag-dolled trying to run- or pass-block a Reggie White, Chris Doleman or other physical edge defender.
 
Burton has prioritized run blocking “and getting in that condition for playing a lot more plays than I have in the past,” he said. “I never really got that many opportunities to work on the run game stuff because I was the third [tight end] and Celek and Ertz were the majority of the run game. I’m trying to make more pride into that and spend more time with that… .
 
“The difficult part of [run blocking] is losing more than you win. In the one-on-ones I’m going against bigger dudes, but I want to get more and more reps. I’m not going to win every single rep—I understand that—but just having the humility of going in there constantly and getting beat but trying every single time, it helps me a lot.”
 
Burton, like backup QBs Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray coming from their backgrounds with Nagy, provides an element in the offense. And he also brings a voice of perspective in what the offense is about.
 
"It's really good,” Nagy said. “[As a] matter of fact, when we're in installs, I may say 'Hey Trey,' I may ask him a question, I may say, ‘Hey Trey, is this how you all have done it in Philadelphia with Doug [Pederson, coach] or etc.?'… . Trey knows this offense inside out, he understands leverage, he understands how to get open so eventually we'll start scheming for him."
 
But the Bears have assistant coaches for quarterbacks, tight ends and every position group. Meaning: Burton’s value must be in playing, not mentoring. The organization once erred badly in signing a one-dimensional, blocker-only tight end (Brandon Manumaleuna, 2010). Nagy has alluded to “scat” pass protection with running backs providing protection through other than head-on blocking, and how Burton is integrated into the offense without sacrificing a dimension warrants watching.
 
“You can call Trey a ‘U’ tight end/receiver, but Trey is going to have to know the ‘Y’ [in-line] position as well,” Nagy said. "This is no longer a deal where you’re just playing a split-out tight end position.”

Bears TE Trey Burton named as player who will thrive in new role in 2018

Bears TE Trey Burton named as player who will thrive in new role in 2018

Chicago Bears tight end Trey Burton played second fiddle to Zach Ertz for the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles last season, but he flashed enough athletic upside during his time as a backup to break the bank in free agency this offseason.

Burton's four-year, $32 million contract with the Bears is a gamble on potential. 

Burton said Thursday that he's working on "getting in that condition for playing a lot more plays," something that should lead to a lot more production. In fact, Burton could end up having an Ertz-like season in 2018: 74 catches, 824 yards and eight touchdowns, the kind of numbers that will make fantasy football players take notice.

Burton was listed among fantasy prospects likely to thrive in a new role this season.

Trey Burton of the Chicago Bears should be on your radar. Burton's coming off draft boards ninth at the position on average, between steady veteran Delanie Walker and the talented but perpetually hurt Jordan Reed.

Burton could become a (Mitch) Trubisky favorite underneath.

Fantasy football aside, Burton will be a critical element in Chicago's offense, the same system that's led to Travis Kelce's stardom in Kansas City. Burton is a similarly gifted athlete and with the weapons the Bears have at receiver, he'll see plenty of open opportunities in the passing game.

By this time next year, Burton's contract may end up being a bargain.

Bears' offensive arsenal ranked as one of NFL's best

Bears' offensive arsenal ranked as one of NFL's best

The Chicago Bears won the 2018 offseason. General manager Ryan Pace made several headline-grabbing moves that focused on rebuilding an offense that finished as one of the NFL's worst in 2017. 

The biggest changes come at wide receiver where Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller were added in free agency and the NFL draft. All three will be big-time contributors in coach Matt Nagy's offense. And don't forget about former first-round pick Kevin White. He's had a great offseason and may finally be ready to become the player Pace envisioned when he selected him seventh overall in 2015.

Pace and the Bears have been praised for their efforts since free agency and now, on the eve of training camp, the new-look offense is regarded as one of the top-10 offensive arsenals in the NFL. But it's not necessarily the new names that have outlets like ESPN so excited. Instead, it's the return of one of the league's top young backfields that gives Chicago a leg up on the competition.

What pushes the Bears up these rankings is their one-two punch at halfback. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will combine to post a cap hit of about $1.4 million in 2018 and might very well project to be the best pair of running backs in football, if Ingram and Kamara slip. Cohen's versatility seems far more likely to be rewarded by Nagy than it was by departed offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.

The Bears' running game was effective in 2017 even without a downfield passing threat. Howard finished the year sixth in rushing and was facing stacked boxes week in and week out. When factoring talents like Robinson, Gabriel and Burton into a more creative passing attack this season, the upside -- all around -- for Chicago's offense is higher than it's been in many, many years.