On paper, the Bears seem to have one of the most, if not the most, complete roster in the NFL. They have no glaring weaknesses which is why most Bears fans believe the sky’s the limit for the 2019 season — even if the national media is perplexingly skeptical.
The one position the Bears could afford an increase in production is at tight end, a position they have been trying to fill since Martellus Bennett left four seasons ago. With the hopes of solidifying the position, Trey Burton was signed before the 2018 season to a four-year, $32-million contract.
He rewarded the Bears with a solid, yet unspectacular, season accumulating 54 receptions for 569 yards and six touchdowns. Not a bad season by any means although it would be hard to say he lived up to his $8-million a year salary.
However, if you look at his season closely, there are reasons to be optimistic that he can improve on those numbers in 2019.
(Yes, this is despite the fact that Burton has been working his way back from a minor groin injury.)
In order to do this, we need to look at where he won last season.
While listed as a tight end, Burton only lined up inline on 46.3 percent of his offensive snaps. On the other hand, he lined up as a wide receiver on 50.7 percent of his snaps mostly from the slot position (31.8 percent).
As you would expect from a player who lines up primarily in the slot and as a tight end he did most of his damage in the middle of the field. 343 of his 569 receiving yards (60.3 percent) came on routes over the middle of the field, with 38.5% of his yards coming in the intermediate passing game (10-20 yards).
In this way, he was a consistent safety blanket for quarterback Mitch Trubisky the entire season.
Whenever Trubisky was struggling and needed an easy completion, Burton was there. Just look at the New England game for proof. Burton had nine receptions (on 11 targets) for 126 yards and a touchdown, which was good for a passer rating of 144.7. When targeting any other receiver that day, Trubisky was 17-39 for 207 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for an abysmal 47.7 passer rating.
It is the chemistry that they developed that leads me to believe Burton’s numbers will look much better this season. As Trubisky goes so does Burton and vice versa.
Knowing this, we can use Trubisky’s numbers to explain some of Burton’s struggles at the end of the year. Johnathan Wood over at Da Bears Blog wrote a great article this offseason about how. Trubisky’s style of play shifted throughout the season.
I encourage you to read the whole article, but the part that stood out to me is how his style of play shifted from deep passes and scrambling in the middle parts of the year to being much more conservative towards the end. This was most likely due to the injury he sustained in Week 11.
So how does this relate to Burton?
Well, if we look at Burton’s stats before Trubisky’s injury, they look pretty good. Through 11 weeks, he had 34 receptions for 420 yards and five touchdowns. He had a healthy 12.4 yards per reception (9.33 yards per target) and was catching 75.6 percent of his targets.
Those numbers extrapolated over a 16-game season would be a much improved 54 receptions for 672 yards and eight touchdowns. Compared to other tight ends last season, those numbers would rank 10th, 7th, and 3rd respectively amongst tight ends.
On the flip side, if we look at his numbers over the final six games (two with Chase Daniel at quarterback and four with Trubisky post-injury), his numbers are significantly worse. He had 20 receptions for 149 yards and only one touchdown in those six games.
His yards per reception dropped to an anemic 7.45 (4.81 yards per target) and his catch rate dropped as well (64.5%) despite a lesser average depth of target.
If we look at those numbers over a 16-game season they come out to 53 receptions for 397 yards and three touchdowns. So while his reception total remained stagnant, his yards and touchdown production fell off of a cliff. His numbers in just the two games that Daniel started were even worse.
Another potential reason for his drop off is the increase in playing time. Burton was a backup before joining the Bears.
His career-high in offensive snaps before this past season was 345. He more than doubled that in 2018 with 860 offensive snaps. While it is impossible to say for certain if this had an effect on his production, it is something to keep an eye on.
With a year under his belt of starting experience, we should be able to eliminate this as a concern moving forward.
As Trubisky becomes more consistent and more comfortable in Matt Nagy’s offense in Year 2 and Burton becomes more accustomed to the grind of a 16-game season, his production should get closer — if not surpass — to what he showed in the first 11 weeks of the season.
Trubisky and Burton clearly have developed great chemistry and the results manifested almost immediately. With a year under their belt working together, there is no reason Burton can’t take the next step and put up numbers you would expect out of the 8th highest-paid tight end in the league.
2019 Stat Prediction: 63 receptions, 740 Yards, 8 touchdowns