NFL free agency is always an on-going exercise in balancing risk with reward, and the Bears’ most recent dive into the marketplace was no exception. But while no team is immune to bad deals, rarely do they begin to regret a contract before the player in question has taken a single competitive snap (injuries aside, of course).
In our opinion, there’s no such thing as a regrettable deal for the Bears this offseason after watching last year’s collection of pass-catching targets disappoint at every turn. But there’s at least one one analyst who believes there could be/already is: Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton believes the Bears will rue the day they signed Trey Burton to a four-year deal worth $32 million. OK, we’re not quite there, but we are willing to hear you out. So, proceed …
According to Moton, there may not be enough snaps to go around for Burton in general, let alone enough to perform well enough to justify the deal. More specifically, Moton sees the second-round draft pick, Adam Shaheen, and 2017 free agent signee, Dion Sims, as viable threats to eat away Burton’s snap share. Indeed, as Moton theorizes, even if Burton lives up to the billing of Big-time Red Zone Threat, he’d still have to share time with Shaheen, who was most effective as a red zone target during his rookie season.
Put differently, the BR analyst views Burton as an overpaid pass-catcher who (1) won’t get the volume of targets needed to make an impact and (2) has limited professional experience at a crowded position.
However, I’m just not sure I buy it – especially the bit about playing time. To put it plainly, GM Ryan Pace would’ve almost certainly spoken with Matt Nagy over precisely how they’d plan to use a guy like Burton, if the Bears were to sign him. Moreover, Burton probably wouldn’t have signed with the Bears without first finding out what kind of role they expected him to play (and how big it was going to be).
But just in case some or all of that isn’t true, lets dive into what Burton’s role should look like for the 2018 Bears and see where there’s space for all three tight ends. Mmkay? Cool.
To start, Burton is the first-string “U” tight end in Matt Nagy’s offensive scheme and the player who should receive the vast majority of snaps in this role. The “U” tight end is split out wide and is essentially an over-sized wide receiver. Someone with Burton’s athleticism and hands could be a mismatch for linebackers who are too slow or defensive backs who are too small to properly cover him. Moreover, the Bears don’t have anyone else like Burton or anyone with experience in this role, as he reportedly knows it as well as anyone at Halas Hall. So, yeah, he seems like the best bet for the most playing time.
As it is, we’ve gone out out of our way to avoid any Travis Kelce comparisons, but there are lessons to learn from the head coach’s former team. For example, the Chiefs’ tight end, Kelce, was on the field for 84.9 percent of their snaps in 2017 and received a whopping 95.1 percent of the positional snap share. Worth noting: he was also lined up in the slot 16 percent of the time last season.
No matter where Burton lines up, then, Nagy will aim to create a mismatch where his tight end has the advantage. So while Burton didn’t get nearly that much playing time as the third tight end in Philadelphia, he probably will be thrust into an expanded role in Chicago.
So what’s left for Shaheen and Sims? Well …
In 2017, Demetrius Harris was Kansas City’s “Y” tight end, a position better suited for either Shaheen and/or Sims, who are more polished blockers than Burton (even though Shaheen didn’t block much in college, last year’s staff emphasized his development into a reliable blocking tight end (we complained about it a lot, but maybe it was for the best)).
Shaheen ran routes on just 31.5 percent of his snaps in 2017, and based on Harris’ usage last year (36.4% routes) figures to get an up-tick in playing time when 2018 rolls around. Sims, meanwhile, arrived in Chicago as an accomplished blocking tight end during his time with the Miami Dolphins, but with enough athleticism to dream on him growing into a capable pass-catcher. So for him, lining up as the in-line “Y” tight end could maximize the skill sets of the other tight ends too, while not cutting into Burton’s playing time specifically.
Things might get crowded in the red zone, sure, but that could be something that plays to the Bears’ advantage. During training camp, the Bears lined up packages with Burton and Shaheen in the same group, as well as receivers Allen Robinson and Kevin White. That group of four would give quarterback Mitch Trubisky some large targets to throw to in a tight area – something the offense lacked last season.
So if there’s still a belief that Burton’s playing time won’t measure up to the big bucks he’s making, we don’t see it. At least not yet. In fact, the numbers suggest those fears should be put to rest once the team puts the ball on the field, because there appears to be plenty of snaps to go around for everyone.
Michael Cerami contributed to this post.