Baby Gronk. That’s the nickname given to Bears tight end Adam Shaheen ever since he started dominating the GLIAC (also known as the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference if you’re not a big Division II college football fan).
And while the nickname was fun and catchy, I have a new one that, given recent head coaching news, is a little more fitting:
With Matt Nagy in the fold, everyone is excited, and rightfully so, about the effect he will have on Mitch Trubisky. But Nagy should be able to have a profound effect on the second-year tight end as well.
Kelce was arguably the most important player to the Chiefs success. Just look at their one playoff game for proof. Once Kelce went out due to injury, the Chiefs offense was shut out.
In 15 games this season, Kelce had 83 receptions (on 122 targets) for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. If we just look at the four games Nagy called plays, he had 21 receptions (on 36 targets) for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Kelce is arguably the top tight end in the NFL, so it is unreasonable to expect the same production out of Shaheen. Nevertheless, they do have some similarities that Nagy can utilize to create mismatches.
Shaheen was used mostly as a blocking tight end this season which anyone – besides John Fox and Dowell Loggains, apparently – could tell they did not play to his strengths. Shaheen, despite his size, was drafted to be a receiving tight end much like Kelce. When he did get his opportunity in the passing game, he flashed some promise.
He showed he can get open, make contested catches, and be a threat in the red zone – three things at which Kelce excels. With Nagy’s ability to scheme receivers open, Shaheen should be able to take the next step in his development.
Fox and Loggains had no idea how to use a player like Shaheen. But, Nagy should have no problem finding ways to utilize him because, well, he’s done it before.
So how does Shaheen compare to Kelce?
Let’s start with physical traits.
Shaheen is bigger than Kelce, but their athletic testing, outside of the 40-yard dash, is remarkably similar. What stood out to me was the agility numbers (3-cone and 20-yard shuttle). Kelce is so fluid in his hips I expected this to be one area where Kelce blew Shaheen out of the water.
But the numbers are identical.
Now, Shaheen might look and move like Kelce, but he has a long way to go before he can truly be compared to the All-Pro. He flashed some potential but he was inconsistent in his rookie season. Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to adjust to in the NFL, especially coming from Division II, so he needs a coach who can put him in a position to succeed.
That’s where Nagy comes in.
Kelce was used in a variety of ways in Andy Reid and Nagy’s west coast offense. Whether he was an inline tight end, slot receiver, or even outside receiver, he was always put in a position to flourish. This includes drawing up plays specifically designed for him. I don’t expect any of that to change with Shaheen.
Here is an example of a play that is predicated on having a big, athletic tight end like Kelce and Shaheen.
The Chiefs come out in 32 personnel (3 running backs, 2 tight ends). This personnel usually dictates a run play and the Patriots respond by putting nine men in the box.
The play is designed to look like an outside zone run with the backside tight end (Kelce) and left guard pulling to the right. The deep running back runs a swing route to the opposite side of the play, which keeps the cornerback (number 21) on that side of the ball honest and essentially takes him out of the play. The linebackers bite on the initial play-fake, leaving a safety as the only Patriot able to make a play. Kelce, given his size, predictably runs through him for a gain of eight.
The beautiful thing about this play is it sets up so many possibilities for the offense.
Let’s say the Chiefs line up in the same formation later in the game, now the linebackers have to respect the shovel pass which opens up the outside zone run that was faked the first time. Or maybe the corner tries to play the shovel pass. Well, that opens up the swing pass for a big play.
The Chiefs ran a couple different variations of the tight end shovel pass in 2017. Always out of different formations and with different personnel so the defense never had time to adjust. The following play is out of 11 personnel but it is essentially the same play.
This next play features a run-pass option (RPO) with Kelce lined up in the slot and running a bubble screen.
There’s a lot going on in this play. First, you have the read option where the quarterback is tasked with “reading” the unblocked defensive end (number 96 in this play). If the defensive end pauses to contain the quarterback, the quarterback would simply hand the ball off to the running back and the play is over. If he plays the running back, which he does in this example, the quarterback will keep the ball and start to run.
That’s a pretty standard play most offenses in the NFL deploy. The Bears even ran variations of the read option with Trubisky this last season.
What makes this play so interesting is the pass option built into it. If the quarterback keeps the ball on the read-option, he has the option to run. But the play is really designed to make the defense think he’s going to run. Once the linebackers and safeties break for the quarterback, he can dump the ball off to the tight end.
In this example, that is exactly what happens and Kelce is able to pick up 15 yards.
And finally, we have a beautifully designed Y-middle screen. The double swing routes from the running backs opens up the middle of the field for Kelce (the Y tight end) who initially blocks the defensive end before turning for the pass.
None of these plays work unless you have a tight end with Kelce’s athleticism. Shaheen might not be the complete tight end that Kelce is yet, but his athleticism is without question.
Now what Shaheen has to do this offseason is watch tape of Kelce. Learn the little things he does to get open. Below is a play not specifically designed for Kelce, but look how he runs this route.
He fakes to the inside like he is running a crossing pattern, but then cuts back outside towards the sideline. Kelce has to make sure he does not get too deep out of his break to avoid getting too close to the other receiver. The goal of this play is to make the corner (No. 21) decide between covering the wide receiver or covering the tight end. If he gets too high out of his break, it makes it easier for the defender to cover both.
It’s little things like this that Shaheen needs to learn in order to be a weapon in Nagy’s system.
In an offense predicated on quick throws, the tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend. The entire offense should improve simply by having a competent head coach and play caller, but Shaheen could see the biggest jump in production. He always had the skill set to be a great tight end, but now he has the coaching to truly take him to the next level.
Shaheen has a long way to go, but the blueprint for his success has already been written.
And if nothing else, Shaheen should at least be able to pick up a few dance moves.