The Chiefs, Eagles and Bears don’t run the exact same offense. But all three take a similar approach to playing offensive football. They use the pass to open up the run. (Historically, this has been the most consistent criticism of the Andy Reid style, dating back to his early Eagles days.) They want athletic offensive linemen that can move well in space. (Screens are everything.) They value speed over all things on the outside. And perhaps most importantly, they rely on major production from the tight end position.
Travis Kelce, the Chiefs All-Pro tight end, has been targeted 109 times this season. He has 75 catches for nearly 1,000 yards. Without Kelce, the Chiefs offense simply doesn’t work.
Philadelphia’s tight end combination of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert have more than 150 targets. And with the club’s inability to field a healthy receiving corps, these two have come to be the bulk of the their passing attack. Monday night, with their season on the line, Ertz was the best player on the field, catching touchdown passes to both tie and beat the New York Giants.
The Bears paid Trey Burton a bunch of money and drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round. In 2019, the two have combined for 37 total targets. Not catches. Targets. Are there multiple factors to the pair’s lack of production? Sure. But there are two primary ones.
Burton never plays.
Shaheen never plays well.
The Bears have gone to their depth to try and find production at the position, mostly to no avail. Ben Braunecker looked like he was going to dominate the Giants before suffering a concussion and subsequently dropping a walk-in touchdown. But then Mitch Trubisky hit Jesper Horsted on a beautifully-thrown touchdown on Thanksgiving. It felt like a moment, an opportunity for fans to see how this offense is meant to function.
Quarterback identifies mismatch and exploits it. That’s what having athletic tight ends affords a play-caller: consistent, unbeatable mismatches. Players like Kelce and Ertz and Kittle are productive weekly because there are no linebackers or safeties who can contain them.
The dam seemed to break for the Bears on Thanksgiving. Trubisky responded a week later by continuing to target Horsted and making J.P. Holtz his leading receiver. The two were targeted 7 times, recording 7 catches for 92 yards. 58 of those yards came after the catch. These weren’t dump offs or throws to the tight ends in traffic. Matt Nagy was getting his weapons into space and the quarterback was finding them.
Ryan Pace’s quarterback decisions could be his fatal flaw. And he’s botched the kicker position since the day he arrived in Chicago. But if the Bears ever want to see the full blossom of Nagy’s offense, fixing the tight end position is essential. If they can get production from the likes of Braunecker, Holtz and Horsted – none of whom could make the Eagles practice squad – what could they achieve with top-level talent at the position?
This isn’t an offense where the tight end is a security blanket. Top players at the position are not a luxury. The Bears need a healthy Burton in 2020 but they can no longer rely on that. Quarterback will likely be the top priority for 2020. But tight end is not far behind. They need better players there to be a better offense.