How should the Chicago Bears solve their tight end problem?
Sign Eric Ebron?
Draft Brycen Hopkins?
[Editor’s Note: Sometimes I think Andrew makes up players to trick me and I certainly didn’t think that name, with that spelling, was a real person. Turns out he is!]
In an ideal world the Bears would know that Trey Burton will be healthy at the start of the 2020 season, with a rookie being groomed to replace him. But the Bears offense is far from an ideal world and they have no idea if Burton will be available and have to plan as if he won’t be.
There isn’t much of a question as to what kind of player Burton is when he’s healthy, but if he can be healthy is anyone’s guess. In the season-ending presser, GM Ryan Pace indicated that he expects Burton to be good to go when the team goes into training camp next year, but they expected that last year too. And, as Pace also indicated, they won’t leave it up to chance this time around.
Twelve months ago, most people thought the Bears had a backup option in case Burton wasn’t healthy in Adam Shaheen. Now we are certain Shaheen isn’t capable of filling that role and the Bears don’t have another capable option on their roster.
So, now what?
The Bears could release Burton, but they’d still have a cap hit of about $7.5 million with only about $1 million in savings. It’s hardly worth it at that point.
Ebron could be an easy fix for the position. He’s certainly a better player than Burton and is coming from a similar offense in Indianapolis. Ebron drops more passes than fans will like and isn’t a great blocker — although, blocking really isn’t the most important part here. He won’t be cheap. He earned $6.5 million per season for the Colts and will likely get a healthy raise from that somewhere after a 13-touchdown 2018 campaign.
The Bears already have $13.8 million allocated to the tight end position in 2020, the third-highest total in the league. It has to be noted, of course, that the Bears have six players at the tight end position counting toward the salary cap, tied for the most in the league. They can free up some money by releasing Burton, Shaheen and Ben Braunecker, but they’d still almost certainly have the highest-paid tight end room in the league by a wide margin if they were to add a significant free agent and still wouldn’t have a true difference-maker at the position.
Furthermore, this offense has historically only used one tight end in the passing game. Although the Philadelphia Eagles are showing that it can feature two tight ends, the Bears aren’t likely to end up with even one tight end as good as their second option, Dallas Goedert.
There are going to be cheaper options like Hunter Henry and Tyler Eifert, but if the Bears are going to bet on a player with injury issues, it seems more logical they’d just keep Burton.
Drafting a tight end early might be the ideal insurance policy, but rookie tight ends often struggle to produce. The 2018 draft was a particularly rich class at the position and the top of the group all caught at least 32 passes and two touchdowns. All three went in the top 50, though and there probably isn’t a player in this year’s class who is as good as 2018’s third tight end, Irv Smith Jr. After the top three tight ends, it was a bit of a crapshoot. The next four players taken combined to catch eight passes in 2019, but Dawson Knox (96th overall) caught 28 passes.
It’s unlikely that the Bears will get starter-quality production out of a rookie, but they should still be able to find a considerable upgrade over what they had in 2019.
Hopkins is one name to keep an eye on, but we’ll come up with several others as the process goes along. The Bears need a tight end who can run and is basically impossible for linebackers to cover. A large part of the Bears offense is predicated on being able to beat linebackers in coverage by either the tight end or the running back.
The much less talked about option for the Bears is to explore the trade market. The super talented former first round pick OJ Howard could be available, as could Gerald Everett, who was taken right before Shaheen in 2017. Howard doesn’t seem to fit what new coach Bruce Arians wants from the position and Everett has fallen behind Tyler Higbee on the depth chart in LA. Both trade targets would be inline for new contracts in the near future, but that might not be a problem with Burton coming off the books after the 2020 season.
There is no reason for the tight end position to be a black hole in 2020 like it was in 2019. There isn’t an easy answer for the Bears, but there are solutions; they just have to find the right one.