Trey Burton set career bests across the board in his first year with the Bears. He caught 54 passes for 569 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2018, but the most important number attached to Burton might be 112.0 – A.K.A. Mitch Trubisky’s passer rating when targeting his top tight end last season.
Now, Burton was never going to be Travis Kelce, but his value as a pass-catcher, who can stretch the middle of the field, work underneath routes, and move the chains is probably a bit too underrated. And after watching the Bears offense struggle early in the playoff loss to the Eagles without him, it became evident that his contributions should no longer go overlooked.
Over at NBC Sports Chicago, JJ Stankevitz makes sure to not fall into that trap as Burton makes Stankevitz’s list of the five most irreplaceable Bears heading into the 2019 season. As you would expect, three of the five players named were All-Pro defenders (hey now, they don’t get more irreplaceable than pass-rusher Khalil Mack, safety Eddie Jackson, or cornerback Kyle Fuller). And to no one’s surprise, quarterback Mitch Trubisky made the cut, too. That leaves Burton standing out from the rest.
And Burton’s inclusion makes sense. Not only did the Bears have to account for a drop-off at that position when he was out, but his absence allowed the Eagles to focus more attention, effort, and man-power to taking away Tarik Cohen as an option. And while we saw how well Trubisky and the Bears offense could make adjustments in a big game, we also witnessed how much that group struggled without a top play-making option. Let’s face it, there was a noticeable drop-off from Burton manning the “U” tight end position compared to when Ben Braunecker and Adam Shaheen were tasked to fill that role during the Bears’ playoff loss to the Eagles. Through that lens, you can understand why Burton is considered irreplaceable.
So what am I getting at? Well, this offseason, the Bears seem destined to part ways with Dion Sims, whose departure will clear up $6 million in cap space. Once Sims is officially out of the picture, it would certainly appear as if the Bears could use some quality depth at the position. They don’t necessarily need Burton’s replacement, but they could (and probably, should) target a player who is a step above Adam Shaheen.
Of course, that won’t be easy either. The Bears will need to find a player who’s versatile enough to play the “U” (which is more of a wide receiver type of role) and “Y” (more of an in-line blocking type) position, depending on what personnel Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich want to roll out onto the field. And while it’s possible the Bears could retain restricted free agent Ben Braunecker or bring back unrestricted free agent Daniel Brown, neither player necessarily fits as that happy medium between Burton and Shaheen.
Unfortunately, at first blush, 2019 doesn’t appear to be the sort of draft where tight end depth is a strength. And even if it were, rookie tight ends are tough to develop because of the learning curve associated with the responsibilities as blockers and receivers. Maybe some prospects will make a name for themselves and emerge onto our radar after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but it won’t likely be a simple solution.
Free agency is probably a better place to find a fit, but I wouldn’t expect the Bears to shop at the top of the market again. So, I apologize in advance for eliminating the possibility of Jared Cook wreaking havoc on his ex-Packers teammates while catching passes from Trubisky.
Perhaps unrestricted free agent Demetrius Harris makes sense as someone who has familiarity with Nagy from their time with the Chiefs. Knowledge of the system and an understanding of what it takes to be the middle man between the top guy and the developing tight end could intrigue the Bears, so that’s one avenue to keep open.
And fortunately, the Bears aren’t facing too many dire needs that’ll require a ton of money, so they might be able to make something work (even with a tight cap). Obviously, with Burton still around, the Bears don’t need to tear down and rebuild the tight ends room – some minor tweaking will do just fine – it’s just that finding the perfect piece to bring the room together might not be as easy as one might think.