Like running back, the tight end position also has been a relatively successful one for the Chicago Bears throughout the franchise's history. Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, as well as Emery Moorehead, Desmond Clark, and Greg Olsen are names that immediately come to mind in this regard.
But in 2019, the Bears didn't get what they needed from this group. Six different tight ends combined for 46 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen struggled with injuries with the former now in Indianapolis and the latter getting traded to Miami prior to the start of training camp. Ben Braunecker was never productive in his four seasons with the Bears (142 receiving yards from 2016 to '19), and he also was shown the door this offseason. J.P. Holtz and Jesper Horsted didn't see snaps until late in the season, so their opportunities were limited. While Eric Saubert suited up for just two games.
Saubert, Holtz, and Horsted are back for this season. But the Bears also bolstered this position with the free-agent signings of Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris and by using this year's first draft pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet. Undrafted free agent Darion Clark also has been added to the mix. But there's no chance Chicago will keep seven tight ends on the active roster so there's plenty of competition for a few spots. Whoever ends up making the team will be asked to produce, especially considering the offensive struggles the Bears endured last season and the uncertainty that remains at quarterback.
There are no preseason games this year (due to COVID-19), so each man will have to earn his keep and impress the coaches and front office in practice. The Bears will only keep three or four tight ends when the season starts, but here is what each needs to do to do in order to solidify their spots come September.
Jimmy Graham: Stay healthy
As a five-time Pro Bowler (2011, '13, '14, '16, '17), and a two-time All-Pro ('11, '13), Graham certainly has the stats on paper (649 career receptions, 7,883 receiving yards, 74 touchdown catches, 12.1 ypr) to be the Bears starting tight end. But the reason why the Green Bay Packers were willing to Graham walk in free agency is due to his lack of production in recent seasons. In the last three seasons, Graham's receptions (57 in '17, 55 in '18, 38 in '19), receiving yards (520, 636, 447), and touchdown catches (10, 2, 3) have taken a dip.
He's also had some nagging injuries that proved enough for the Packers to decide to go in a different direction at the position. So the Bears are taking a chance on Graham in the hopes that he'll upgrade the tight end position. His contract (two years, $16 million) was bigger than most experts expected he'd get this offseason, but he'll be a bargain if he returns to even three-quarters of his Pro Bowl/All-Pro form.
Cole Kmet: Live up to the hype
This 21-year-old looks to continue to the lineage of great Fighting Irish tight ends that Notre Dame has produced over the last decade. He played in 23 games in South Bend, but last year was his first as the starter as he waited for his turn, and he produced 60 catches for 691 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers will need to increase in order to be successful in the NFL, but Kmet has the total package on paper, at least.
He has size (6-6, 262), speed, strength. He can catch, he can block, and he's displayed evidence that he can produce with the ball in his hands. Now Kmet needs to translate that success, and those intangibles, over to the pro game. He was the first tight end chosen in this year's draft, and now he has to live up to that billing.
Demetrius Harris: Be more productive in the passing game
Formerly of the Chiefs and Browns, Harris is heralded for his blocking skills. And he has shown some potential when catching the ball (72 receptions, 754 yards, 10.5 ypr, 9 touchdowns). Being a bigger factor in the passing game is what will help Harris make this team. He played under head coach Matt Nagy in Kansas City, so he knows that Nagy needs his tight ends to make an impact downfield.
Harris has yet to reach 20 receptions in a single season (career-high is 18 catches back in '17), and his career-high for single-season receiving yards is 224 (also in '17), but as a seven-year veteran, experience alone gives him an edge over the remaining players in the meeting room. Now is the time for Harris to turn that experience into production.
J.P. Holtz: Step up as a receiver
Before joining the Bears late last year, Holtz was a practice squad player in both Cleveland ('16-'17), and Washington ('18). He started off at the bottom of the Bears depth chart but moved up due to injuries. Holtz found himself in the lineup regularly later in the season, but he was mostly used as a blocker, sometimes lining up at fullback. Holtz caught seven balls for 91 yards in '19, but if he wants to make this roster again, he'll need to be more of a downfield weapon.
Jesper Horsted: Improve as a blocker
The Princeton alumnus started the season on the practice squad but was added to the active roster in the wake of Burton and Shaheen's injuries. A converted wide receiver, Horsted was impressive during last year's preseason. During the regular season, however, he only made eight receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. Horsted was used in plenty of multi-receiver sets, and he still has plenty of receiver-like instincts and tendencies.
So Horsted's biggest improvement must be as a blocker. We already know that he can catch the ball, and he certainly has the size (6-3, 237) to play tight end, but improving his technique in the trenches will help his cause.
Eric Saubert and Darion Clark: Stand out and get the coaching staff's attention
These two are longshots to make this Bears roster. Chicago claimed Saubert off of the Raiders' practice squad late last season, and he played in just two games. He's been in the league since 2017, but he only has seven receptions for 69 yards to show for it. Clark, on the other hand, is a converted basketball player hoping to use his power forward frame (6-7, 235) to succeed as an NFL tight end.
Saubert must show the coaches that he can produce on a regular basis when he's on the field. While Clark hasn't played football since high school and is making quite the leap in the hopes of landing an NFL job. Both men need to do anything and everything that they can in order to stand out and try to, at least, grab a practice squad spot.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of chicagobears.com)