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With Adam Shaheen injured, Bears must lean on tight-end depth

Bears tight end Ben Braunecker scores a touchdown as Denver Broncos linebacker Keishawn Bierria defends during the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday. | David Zalubowski, AP photo

A linebacker followed running back Taquan Mizzell out of the backfield, so quarterback Chase Daniel knew the Broncos were playing man coverage Saturday night. The plan still was to throw to Mizzell — he was the No. 1 option — when Daniel saw tight end Ben Braunecker sprint off the line of scrimmage to his right.

“I saw something flash,” Daniel said. “I saw Ben beat his guy clean off the line and run a great route. He had him beat, and he was easy to throw to when he was that wide open.”

Braunecker released past linebacker Keishawn Bierria on a corner route, catching a 12-yard touchdown pass on the first play after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

It proved to be the game-winner in a 24-23 victory that was more Pyrrhic than promising. Tight end Adam Shaheen hurt his right ankle when he rolled it along the right sideline on the first drive of the game. Coach Matt Nagy said after the game that he didn’t think it was broken. Indeed, initial results indicated a low ankle sprain, according to NFL Network, though he was due for more tests.

For at least the three weeks before the start of the regular season, the Bears will test the depth of a position group that, before Shaheen’s injury, was considered one of the team’s strengths. Braunecker and Daniel Brown are fighting for roles behind Trey Burton and the block-first Dion Sims.

“They’re nice-sized guys, and they have good wiggle,” Nagy said of Brown and Braunecker. “They’re very agile, and you can create matchups on linebackers. They have some size against safeties, and they have some speed against linebackers. They understand how important the ‘new tight end’ is in this offense, but they also understand if that is the case and you’re thrust into that role, you have to be able to block, too.”

Braunecker, a third-year player from Harvard, had that one big catch for the 12-yard touchdown against the Broncos. Brown, a converted wideout the Bears claimed from the Ravens two years ago, had one reception for 11 yards. With Shaheen out, Brown played half of the Bears’ 80 snaps, and Braunecker played 38.

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“I think we just have a really athletic tight end room overall,” Daniel said. “They made some plays. They were pretty good. It just shows. In practice, they have been making plays when given opportunities.”

Brown ranks second on the Bears with 101 preseason receiving yards on six catches. Braunecker has two catches for 32 yards. Neither offers the upside of Shaheen, the second-round pick from 2017 who Nagy said has physical traits that remind him of Rob Gronkowski.

Shaheen caught only 12 passes for 127 yards as a rookie before missing the last three games because of injury. But after adjusting to the NFL from Division II Ashland last year, Shaheen has had a strong training camp. The Bears envisioned him as a jump-ball option in the end zone but also appreciated the strides he’d made in his route-running precision.

“It was a big [loss],” said Burton, the Bears’ main pass-catching tight end, who led all players with 45 yards on four catches in Denver. “But fortunately I think Dion Sims is coming back soon, so that will help, as well.”

Sims, who will be the team’s featured blocking tight end, missed the last two preseason games with a concussion but traveled to Denver, a good sign.

“They’re pretty deep in the tight ends room,” quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “And they’re a smart group, so you can plug them in at any time, and they’ll do exactly what you need to do. We’ve got a lot of athleticism at tight end, and they get open and know the offense well, so that’s what you want from that group.”