It looks like the Chicago Bears will have a good kind of problem at the tight end position this summer.
Even if all signs point to the Bears implementing more sets with two tight ends than usual, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune writes that turnover in the tight end room could lead to Zach Miller being pushed out by another player on the roster. Because as it stands, the Bears aren’t going to carry every tight end in camp on their season-opening roster.
Tight end was a team strength as recently as 2015 when Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller proved to be a potent tag team at the position. Bennett was a Pro Bowler who excelled as a blocker and receiver, while a healthy Miller provided a different kind of pass catching threat and was a reliable safety blanket for Jay Cutler. Two years later, things are different for the Bears at this particular position.
Bennett is long gone. He’ll be catching passes from Aaron Rodgers for the Green Bay Packers one season after winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots after being traded by the Bears last offseason. Meanwhile, Miller enters the final year of his Bears contract as the wily veteran in a school of youngsters aiming for more playing time.
Last season, three different players – including Miller – started at tight end for the Bears, and four others took snaps. This season, Miller is one of six tight ends who will open training camp with the team in July. Let’s take a first look at the tight end depth chart and sort out who is a contender for a roster spot.
Dion Sims (767 snaps in 2016)
No tight end on the Bears’ 2017 training camp roster played more snaps at his position than Sims, who did it for Adam Gase and the Miami Dolphins. Assuming the Bears go through with running their offense through more two tight end sets, Sims will likely play a major role as one of the primary tight ends used by offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. Sims has a reputation as a quality blocker, which would be welcomed by Pro Bowl running back Jordan Howard. However, for the Bears to get the most out of Sims, he will need to improve as a pass catcher to live up to the dual threat potential some think he has.
Zach Miller (511 snaps in 2016)
The Bears were rumored to be trying to move Miller earlier in the offseason, but to this point have found no takers. That’s fine. As it stands, Miller is the best tight end on the roster, and you could argue he is the team’s best pass catcher – which says a lot about the state of the wide receivers currently employed by the team. Miller is injury prone (he finished 2016 on injured reserve and missed time during the offseason training program recovering from the injury) and will be playing in his age 33 season in 2017, which could put him on the chopping block this summer. Still, he is the most experienced skill position player with skills as a blocker (both passing and running) and receiver, which could help boost the production of a running game led by Howard and an aerial attack behind quarterback Mike Glennon. His status is up-in-the-air right now, but training camp will tell us everything we need to know about his future.
Daniel Brown (261)
Biggs paints Brown as a sleeper to potentially push Miller off the roster. Brown made a positive impression in the six games (three starts) he made after joining the Bears after being claimed off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. In limited snaps, Brown had a higher receiving grade than Sims, according to Pro Football Focus. Brown checks in at 6-foot-5, 243 pounds – which his exactly what Miller measures out at via the roster listing on the Bears’ website. If the Bears can get Miller’s production from a younger, healthier, more cost-efficient player, then more power to them.
Ben Braunecker (146)
The Harvard product made two starts for the Bears during his rookie season, but played sparsely. Braunecker signed as an undrafted free agent and spent time on the Bears’ practice squad. He doesn’t project to get a ton of playing time unless players ahead of him on the depth chart get bit by the injury bug. Considering the Bears’ injury woes last season, perhaps he should be on call.
MyCole Pruitt (41)
The Bears picked up Pruitt off waivers from the Minnesota Vikings, and he appeared in two games at the end of last season. He was a fifth-round pick (143rd overall) out of FCS powerhouse Southern Illinois University in 2015, and Biggs notes he has upside as a receiver or H-back. Perhaps he’ll find himself in a battle for playing time with Braunecker this preseason. It’s a position battle inside a position battle.
Adam Shaheen (rookie)
Signing Sims in free agency didn’t deter the Bears from doubling up at the position via the draft, selecting Shaheen in the second round. A trio of Miller, Sims, and Shaheen checks all the necessary boxes for a potentially productive tight end group. However, there simply isn’t enough snaps to go around for all three to reach their full potential in 2017. If Shaheen can develop as a blocker during training camp, it could be one of the factors that allow the Bears to move on from Miller.
The long-term window shows a picture of Shaheen and Sims leading the way at tight end. Both players have something to work toward this season in an attempt to round out their game. Imagining Shaheen improving as a blocker and Sims making strides as a pass catcher seems like a pipe dream, but if this group is to grow as expected, that’s what will need to happen.
Unfortunately, that leaves Miller as the odd man out – for better or worse.