Zach Miller isn’t expected to ever return from last year’s left leg injury that could have resulted in amputation, so this will likely be a younger group of Bears tight ends, and one lacking anyone who possesses the pass-catching ability of the 33-year-old Miller.
Miller was a viable down-the-field threat when he was healthy. He had 11 touchdowns in three seasons as a Bear, despite missing 15 games with a variety of injuries.
The Bears addressed tight end last year in free agency and in the draft, but with only marginal success.
Five-year veteran Dion Sims, who turned 27 in February, is now the old man of the Bears’ TE crew. He was underwhelming in the first year of his three-year, $18 million deal, catching just 15 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown. Even after Miller went down at midseason, Sims failed to assert himself as a threat in the passing game. Much more will be expected going forward, but Sims showed little promise of becoming a difference-making receiver.
Adam Shaheen was the Bears’ second-round pick (45th overall) in 2017, but he caught just one pass for two yards in his first eight games as a pro. It was assumed it would take some time for him to make the adjustment from Division-II Ashland, but his anticipated athleticism never really emerged. He did have a pair of four-catch games in the second half of the season and could take a big step in 2018 with a year of experience. Although he finished with just 12 catches for 127 yards, Shaheen led the Bears with three TD catches.
Three-year veteran Daniel Brown, who is more effective as a pass-catching weapon than as an in-line blocker, saw increased action after Miller went down and finished with 13 catches for 129 yards. But the restricted free agent is not nearly the receiving threat that Miller was.
Ben Braunecker, undrafted out of Harvard in 2016, has spent most of his time on the practice squad with only modest development.
The 6-foot-4, 268-pound Sims and the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Shaheen both have the size to handle the physical part of the job, so the Bears could kick the tires on a pass-catching TE in free agency or possibly in the later rounds of the draft.
Marquee veterans like Jimmy Graham (too expensive) and Tyler Eifert (too injured) are probably not on the Bears’ radar, and after them, there isn’t much to choose from. But undersized and athletic Eagles backup Trey Burton, a college quarterback at Florida, is a versatile player, as he showed with a TD pass in Super Bowl LII.
Don’t expect the Bears to invest much on another tight end in the draft. There are a handful of talented two-way players this year, but they’ll be snapped up quickly, and there isn’t much depth. The Bears have too many other needs to prioritize tight end for a second straight year.
The Big Ten is well represented, even after Penn State’s Mike Gesicki, a likely Day Two pick.
Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli could be a Day Three option. He lacks bulk, but he has a 6-foot-5 frame that could fill out with a couple years in an NFL weight room. He won’t stretch the field, but he does have better-than-average receiving skills and caught 93 passes in his final two years for 1,127 yards, six touchdowns and a 12.1-yard average.
Indiana’s Ian Thomas emerged as an NFL prospect last season as a senior, catching 25 passes for 376 yards (15.0-yard average) and five touchdowns. He’s another 6-foot-5 athlete with room to grow, and he has some position flexibility and blocking experience in pass pro and as an H-back in the run game. As a junior-college transfer, Thomas had only one year of solid production at the FBS level, but his best football is ahead of him.