With the Bears currently at 6-6, Chicago is at the very least guaranteed four more regular season games in 2019. Playoffs are not technically out of the equation, but the reigning NFC North champs will need some help in order to make the postseason.
But even if the Bears’ season ends after their Week 17 matchup against the Vikings, a lot can still be gained in the final games. Most importantly would be to continue assessing and developing the young talent on the roster, and one group that head coach Matt Nagy will be observing thoroughly is the tight end position.
It’s well documented that Nagy’s offense is heavily dependent on the play of the tight ends, especially since the “Y” and “U” positions have their own unique and specific role in the scheme. So, coming into this season, there was hope that starting TEs Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen could be the weapons the offense needed to help take the next step in Year 2 under Nagy.
Burton had a fairly successful first year in 2018 and finished with 54 receptions, 569 yards and six touchdowns, and despite being held out of the last season’s Wild Card Game due to injury, 2019 was supposed to be another productive year. Shaheen, on the other hand, still had upside as a former second-round pick.
But just two days after the Bears defeated the Lions 24-20 on Thanksgiving day, Shaheen’s season ended. The starting tight ends were both placed on IR (Shaheen on Nov. 30 and Burton Nov. 16) to end an extremely disappointing 2019 campaign.
The numbers speak for themselves, and the lack of production from the tight ends has only added to the issues the Bears currently have on offense. But the void that Burton and Shaheen created has given the backups opportunities to showcase their abilities.
Here is what Ben Braunecker, J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted have done in the limited games they have played in this season.
Let’s be honest, the collective stats by the backups now turned starters are not anything to be overly impressed about. Still, it’s worth seeing how Braunecker, Horsted and Holtz perform for the rest of 2019.
Holtz was the first of the group that made his presence felt this season. In the Bears’ 17-16 loss to the Chargers, Holtz helped rookie running back David Montgomery get the first 100-yard rushing game of his young career. Montgomery finished with 27 carries, 135 yards and a touchdown.
Against the Chargers, Holtz lined up primarily as the fullback and was the lead block for Montgomery. Each of these runs were called on first down and kept the offense ahead of the chains and helped the rookie to reach the end zone.
Braunecker, now in his fourth year with the Bears, caught his first career touchdown in the meeting with the Lions at Soldier Field in Week 10. On second-and-5 from the Lions’ 18-yard line, Braunecker lined up in the slot to the right, made an inside move on safety Will Harris as he ran the corner route, and this gave Mitch Trubisky enough space to fit the ball perfectly into his tight end’s hands. The touchdown was the Bears’ first points of the game, and after the extra point, Chicago took the lead, 7-6.
— NFL (@NFL) November 10, 2019
Ironically, Horsted’s first career touchdown also came against the Lions, on an 18-yard pass and with Harris in coverage. This time, though, the venue was Ford Field. With the Bears down 17-10 in the third quarter, Horsted lined up next to the right tackle on first-and-10. At the snap, he released up the field and began to separate from the defender on the post route. Trubisky then put just enough touch on the ball for Horsted to corral it against his helmet.
WHAT. A. CATCH. 😯
— NFL (@NFL) November 28, 2019
For the young tight ends, these last four games will be pivotal for them to leave a lasting impression on the Bears’ coaching staff. The remaining opponents (Dallas, Green Bay, Kansas City and Minnesota) each have given up some favorable statistics to opposing tight ends.
According to The Football Database, Dallas has given up five TDs on the year to tight ends. Green Bay has given up the second-most yards with 804 and is tied for giving up the fourth amount of TDs with six. Kansas City is tied with Arizona for the most receptions given up at 77, and opposing teams have targeted tight ends 116 times against Minnesota’s defense, which is the most in the league.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that the Bears will take advantage of these defenses, but these final opponents may just be what the offense needed in order to finally see some quality production out of the tight ends.
If the tight ends want to make an impact on this offense, they will have an opportunity on Thursday night against Dallas to make that happen.