The phrase “matchup nightmare” is a routinely overutilized term in NFL media circles.
It can have a number of different meanings and connotations. You could be talking about someone who is impossible to cover, impossible to block, impossible to get past, or even impossible to tackle.
However, it isn’t used more often, or more accurately, than when describing dominant tight ends. They’re too fast for most linebackers, too big for most defensive backs, they help out in the running game with blocking and they can be a young quarterback’s best friend in the passing game.
We see all of these assets come together in the league’s greatest, like Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz, and their value cannot be overstated in terms of helping their teams earn playoff spots and win championships.
This season, the Bears will feature not one but two tight ends who have potential to be among the league’s most productive, and if a competent offensive coordinator and head coach (sit down, Dowell) gets their hands on them, they can be turned into a deadly weapon for a rapidly improving Chicago Bears team.
This is the fifth installment of a series of positional previews leading up to the opening of the Bears’ training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois on July 21nd.
Projected Depth Chart-2017 stats
* = stats from 2016
^ = college stats
1. Trey Burton–23 receptions, 248 yards, 5 touchdowns
1a. Adam Shaheen–12 receptions, 127 yards, 3 touchdowns
3. Dion Sims–15 receptions, 180 yards, 1 touchdown
4. Daniel Brown–13 receptions, 129 yards
5. Ben Braunecker*-4 receptions, 41 yards
6. Colin Thompson^-3 receptions, 43 yards, 1 touchdown
I had to put someone behind the other on the depth chart but make no mistake, Burton and Shaheen are equals in this offense and on this team. For those asking “How is that possible? They play the same position,” I have one simple answer: they don’t.
Shaheen is going to be a more traditional Y, or in-line tight end with his hand in the dirt, helping out with blocking and receiving. He’ll be split out wide in goalline sets and will stand up every so often in the slot but generally, he’ll be closest to the line of scrimmage.
Burton is an entirely different animal, playing the F, or “move” tight end, or “joker,” or whatever you want to call it, but he’ll be closer to a receiver than what Shaheen will do. The former Eagle and the second-rounder out of Ashland will be on the field together more often than not and will have roles of similar magnitude in Nagy’s system, competing for targets just like any receiver group.
Dion Sims‘ standing is another story, coming off a disappointing season. He should have a boost of confidence from Ryan Pace’s decision to retain him despite being able to save about six million dollars with his release. He will help in the blocking scheme but his pass-catching skills are severely limited.
Brown and Braunecker have been able to stick around as bottom of the roster/practice squad players in the past couple of years, with only enough room on the final 53 for one of them. Brown, now on a multi-year contract, has the upper hand and possesses a decent amount of receiving ability. Thompson is primarily a blocker and is a long shot to make the team.
Key training camp battle-Dion Sims vs. a lack of playing time
Sims is in an interesting spot here. As one of two holdovers (the other being Prince Amukamara) from the appalling free agent class of 2017, he has a roster spot locked down but not necessarily a role in the offense. This is especially true if Shaheen impresses coaches as much as I’m assuming he will and potentially already has. He’ll need to prove his absolute value as a blocker in order to see a significant number of snaps in 2018.
Keys to Success
1. Red zone
Between Allen Robinson, Burton, and Shaheen, the Bears should have no trouble at all getting their passing attack to work inside the 20-yard line. For the sake of the subject of this article, I’ll focus on the last two. Both are assets in the red zone but they do it in very different ways.
Burton is somewhat undersized for a modern day tight end, coming in at 6’3″, but he’s faster, stronger, and more skilled as a route runner. He’s perfected the art of boxing out defenders and gaining positioning to make himself an appealing target for quarterbacks once the offense gets close to pay dirt. He can be easily lost in coverage on both in and out routes, as well as up the seam-watch his tape from a game last season against the Rams, in a leading role with Ertz sidelined with an injury.
Shaheen, albeit in a small number of reps, displayed a fantastic size and speed combination and great hands to boot, along with an aptitude for goalline fades. He surprised defenders numerous times with his acceleration after a short route, which can help him find the pylon easily on slides and boots which utilize quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s athleticism.
Each of these tight ends brings unique traits to the table and should help the Bears convert on many or most of their short yardage opportunities.
2. Even more versatility and blending with receivers
As one of the keys to success in my piece about the receiving corps, I went over their diversity and versatility and how many different looks Nagy could throw at opposing defenses. Throw the tight ends into this, and it gets even better.
Shaheen will mostly line up close to the line of scrimmage but imagine goal line looks with the touchdown machine in Robinson on one side and the 6’7″ Shaheen on the other. If the raw but skilled second-year man can further develop his abilities in that area, that pairing would be nearly unstoppable.
The same would be true of Burton’s ideal usage, which is lining him up literally everywhere. He can play as a flanker or a wing, in the slot, outside, or even as a fullback in the backfield. He would make an ideal foil for a speedster like Taylor Gabriel or Tarik Cohen on pick plays, screens, and especially switch routes, with Burton running a wheel and slipping wide open as the defense shifts to the speed of the little guy.
3. Correct Utilization
The biggest trap that coaches fall into with tight ends is trying to make them into something they’re not. An excellent example of this error is what the Seattle Seahawks did to Jimmy Graham. Graham is a receiver in a tight end’s body, who is best suited to line up outside and catch all the jump balls the quarterback has to offer, and for years in New Orleans, he thrived in this role. But Seattle attempted to make him a more traditional in-line tight end, and this failed for two reasons. For one, Graham cannot block to save his mother’s life. And second, this took away his space to do what he does best: line up outside and make plays.
The Bears can’t afford to make the same mistake. While Shaheen has all the potential in the world, he isn’t a refined enough route runner to be trusted to beat outside corners outside of the red zone on a consistent basis. Burton is fantastic at what he does but even the Eagles fans that I know who lauded the Bears’ move to sign him say he will never be a run blocker and should not be utilized as such.
Nagy has to see the upside in what these two big men can become but it’s entirely up to him to make sure he puts them in a position to succeed. If he does, the Bears’ offense could go from pretty good to among the most dangerous in football.
Follow Jack on Twitter:@JS_92_–Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune