Last weekend against New Orleans, nine-year veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime to propel the Vikings to the Divisional Round. Today, he will suit up to face the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers.
Before the Bears named Clancy Barone their new tight ends coach, he held the same title when he was in Minnesota in 2017. Under Barone, Rudolph had one of his most productive seasons in the NFL.
He caught 57 passes for 532 yards and eight touchdowns, and this landed Rudolph on the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career.
But in Chicago, Barone doesn’t have a Rudolph.
To be honest, he doesn’t have much at all.
Between Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, J.P. Holtz, Jesper Horsted, Ben Braunecker and Eric Saubert the group managed 46 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.
It’s safe to say that Barone has his work cut out for him.
There is some hope, though, for this current group of Bears tight ends (including but not really Bradley Sowell). Everywhere that Barone has coached in the NFL has produced a Pro Bowl tight end.
In his first NFL coaching opportunity with the Atlanta Falcons, Barone inherited a Pro Bowl TE in Alge Crumpler for the 2005-06 season. Crumpler was voted to the Pro Bowl the previous two seasons and continued his success with Barone.
When Barone moved on to Los Angeles to be the Chargers’ tight ends coach for the next two seasons (07-08), he, again, was gifted with an already made Pro Bowler in Antonio Gates. From 2004-11, Gates held that honor.
At Barone’s next stop in Denver, he served as the tight ends coach in 2009 and 2011-14. Here he started from scratch when the Broncos drafted Julius Thomas in the fourth round in 2011. After working with Barone for two years, Thomas made back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2013-14.
Four NFL Teams. Four Pro Bowlers. That’s quite an impressive track record for the new Bears’ coach.
But it’s important to note that the tight ends Barone worked with in the past, except for Gates, who will be in the Hall of Fame one day, were all drafted: Rudolph (Rd. 2, Pick 43), Thomas (Rd. 4, Pick 129) and Crumpler (Rd. 2, Pick 35).
Of the six Bears that registered a catch in 2019, two were drafted: Shaheen (Rd. 2, Pick 45) and Saubert (Rd. 5, Pick 174). Sorry to break it to anyone, but the Bears don’t have the next Gates on this roster.
Burton is currently the Bears’ best option to keep Barone’s trend alive. In his first season with the Bears, Burton had 54 receptions, 569 yards and six TDs. That 2018 season seems far removed, though, especially with Burton’s injuries continuing to pile up.
As for Shaheen, there shouldn’t be much hope invested in the former second-round pick. In three seasons, he has missed 21 games. Despite general manager Ryan Pace declaring in his end-of-the-year press conference that Shaheen will be on the team in training camp this summer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cut.
For Braunecker, Holtz, Horsted and Saubert, they play TE, but they shouldn’t be viewed as reliable contributors to the offense. Backups would be fine.
Realistically, this TE group is going to change in the next coming months. In free agency, guys like Hunter Henry, Eric Ebron, Austin Hooper and Tyler Eifert could be available. And in the draft, Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet seems to be a popular choice if he is on the board when the Bears select in the second round.
Head coach Matt Nagy and Pace have emphasized consistently how important the tight end position is to this Bears offense. So, regardless of who is a part of the group in 2020, there needs to be more and consistent production moving forward.
Barone has 32 years of coaching under his belt, and he will have to use every amount of that experience to get the most out of his new unit.
Hopefully, Barone is used to long and sleepless nights, because that is exactly what he signed up for in Chicago.