Chicago Bears tight ends were targeted 69 times in 2019.
They caught a grand total of two touchdowns.
Those two numbers are all you need to know to understand why the team fired its tight ends coach, hired a replacement with a bunch of experience, and have been connected to some possible second-round prospects who could be available in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. But because tight ends can develop slowly and the Bears don’t have much time to give to a developmental project during what is perceived to be their window of contention, perhaps dipping their toes into free agency would be wise. If it is, exploring the deep end could be costly.
ESPN’s Field Yates offered up seven free agents who are probably going to make more money than you would otherwise have expected going into this offseason. Among them is Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, who will be at the top of every tight end starved team’s wish list this spring. Hooper caught 75 passes, gained 787 yards, and caught six touchdowns last season. And the year before that, he made the Pro Bowl after snagging 71 balls for 660 yards and four touchdowns. Hooper’s development as a two-way tight end has positioned him to cash in this offseason, something Yates predicts will happen.
“If he is not franchise-tagged by the Falcons, he has an excellent shot to sign the largest free-agent contract for a tight end ever,” Yates writes, “surpassing the three-year, $30 million pact Jimmy Graham earned from the Packers.”
If you’ll recall, Graham was reportedly a free agent target of both the Bears and Packers before he signed with Green Bay. When signing, Graham was coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with the Seahawks, went to three Pro Bowls previously with the Saints, and had made an All-Pro first team in 2013 by the time he signed the deal with Green Bay. It was a well-decorated résumé for Graham, but he was entering his age 32 season. So while Hooper doesn’t have the accolades Graham did, he will jump into free agency as a 25-year-old. Being as accomplished as he is with his age and upside will make Hooper a highly sought after free agent. And one who figures to break the bank, too.
So … ‘sup, Bears?
Obviously, the need is there. And Hooper’s age and upside is certainly enticing. But considering the Bears’ other needs, potential cap ramifications of signing a large deal, and the possibility of finding a tight end replacement via the draft makes it tough to envision a scenario with Hooper signing with Chicago. And lest we forget what happened the last time the Bears handed out a significant contract to a free agent tight end. That isn’t to say that it can’t happen. The salary cap can be manipulated, and Bears GM Ryan Pace and his front office teammates have shown an ability to move things around to create spending money. And did we mention that Bears tight ends were a special brand of disappointing last year?
If Hooper’s representatives meet with Chicago’s contract guys in free agency, I’m sure they’ll point to the numbers I mentioned at the top of the page before asking for a top-of-the-market deal. So if you want the Bears to land that guy, be prepared to see a large number attached to his next contract.