Part 4 of an 11-part series previewing the NFL draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
Intrigued by Adam Shaheen’s dominance of overmatched Division II opponents and careful to note his height, weight and complexion, overzealous Bears fans gave him a nickname before he ever played an NFL down: “Baby Gronk.”
In October, the real thing was asked if he’d ever heard of Shaheen.
“Uhhhh, sometimes?” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski stammered.
Gronkowski couldn’t be blamed for his ignorance of Shaheen’s exploits. Since being drafted in the second round out of Ashland two years ago, Shaheen has caught 17 passes for 175 yards and four touchdowns.
A chest injury cost him the last three games of his rookie year. He started last season on injured reserve after hurting his right ankle and foot in the preseason. He returned in mid-November against the Vikings but suffered a concussion while catching a two-point conversion, which cost him another game.
Shaheen’s foot and ankle affected him even after he returned, but he hopes to be healthy for a change this year. He has appeared in only 19 of a possible 32 regular-season games during his career.
“I’m really excited to see when he gets back in,” coach Matt Nagy said last month. “To see him 100 percent.”
Two years in, it’s hard to pin down exactly what Shaheen is — other than the Bears’ second-most important tight end behind starting pass-catcher Trey Burton.
Shaheen played the Bears’ in-line tight-end position — the “Y” — and could do more of the same now that the oft-injured Dion Sims is gone. But that might be selling Shaheen short. General manager Ryan Pace drafted him to be a matchup problem in the red zone.
“It will be important for him to stay healthy for 16 games, that’s No. 1,” Nagy said. “We’ve got to have that; that’s important. He got better at holding the line of scrimmage. I thought, as a ‘Y’ tight end, holding the end of the line of scrimmage and the point, he can do that. He’s a big guy.
“Then route-running, he’s not going to give you the wiggle-wiggle that some of the ‘U’ tight ends do. But he’s a bigger-type person.”
If the Bears draft a tight end this month, it figures to be an in-line blocker. They’re set at ‘‘U’’ with Burton, who, in his first season as a full-time starter, came close to matching his four-year totals with the Eagles.
Burton’s season had a curious ending. He woke up the day before the Bears’ playoff game with a groin injury that was confirmed by team MRI exams. He didn’t play in the eventual loss to his former team. Burton said afterward that, while his body has a history of locking up when it feels “any threat,” he didn’t believe that his previous struggles with anxiety played a role in the injury.
Grading the Bears’ need: Medium. The Bears cut Dion Sims after two disappointing seasons but didn’t replace him with an in-line blocker. They brought back Ben Braunecker, who was involved in 56.2 percent of their special-teams plays, on a two-year deal. Daniel Brown left to sign a one-year contract with the Jets.
On the roster: Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Ben Braunecker and Zach Miller.
The five best draft prospects: Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and Stanford’s Kaden Smith.
Keep an eye on: In the last 12 years, only one tight end has been taken in the top half of the first round — Eric Ebron, who was drafted 10th by the Lions in 2014. Hockenson figures to be the second. The 6-5, 251-pound redshirt junior could even be plucked higher than Ebron if a tight end-needy team — the Jaguars, Lions or Bills — falls in love with him. If so, Hockenson, who shares an alma mater with breakout star George Kittle and former NFL standout Dallas Clark, would be the highest tight end taken since the 49ers picked Vernon Davis sixth in 2006.
Close to home: A four-star recruit out of Hinsdale Central, Ian Bunting played three years at Michigan, starting eight times but totaling only 11 catches for 124 yards, before transferring to Cal last season. There, he caught 18 passes for 195 yards. The 6-7, 255-pounder participated in Northwestern’s pro day and could be an undrafted free agent.