Bears coach Matt Nagy expects injured TE Trey Burton back in 2020
Nagy left little doubt about the Bears’ plans for Burton, but his status is murky because of ongoing injury trouble.
Bears coach Matt Nagy cleared up any mystery about the team’s plans for tight end Trey Burton with his reaction to a question about whether Burton intends to continue his career.
“Yeah, I would hope so,” Nagy said without hesitation. “I don’t see why not.”
Whether Burton believes that’s possible remains murky, and he isn’t healthy, despite being off the last month and a half.
This has been a lost season for Burton after a career year in 2018. He went on injured reserve in November after appearing in eight games and managing just 14 catches for 84 yards with no touchdowns.
His status has been enigmatic since January, when he missed the Bears’ playoff game against the Eagles because his groin “completely locked up.” He underwent sports hernia surgery months later — a delay that he and the Bears didn’t provide much detail about — and hit a setback within days of returning to the field for training camp in July.
“With training camp, it was more just being mindful, just being smart,” general manager Ryan Pace said in his most recent news conference Sept. 2. “So to rush him out there in training camp and say, ‘Hey, go full-speed in practice,’ that’s just not the smart thing to do.”
That appears to be what happened, though.
Burton made his season debut against the Broncos in Week 2 but was never truly back. He would feel fine one day, then struggle the next. He told the Sun-Times in October that he felt mentally refreshed and was “ready to rock and roll,” but his body was unreliable.
Shortly before going on IR, Burton wrote a blog post for Sports Spectrum saying he had been examined by multiple doctors and hadn’t gotten an answer for why he didn’t feel right.
“I’d never been through anything like this,” he wrote. “Usually, when I’m on the field, I’m playing to thrive, but more recently . . . I’m just trying to survive.”
Burton has been off-limits to the media since going on IR, and his agent didn’t return a message seeking clarity.
“He’s had a year of trying to get healthy, and he’s not there yet,” Nagy said. “He’s just going to be working through that, and we’ll see where he’s at here as he goes. He’s still working on getting healthy.”
Burton’s absence was one of several factors that sank the Bears’ offense this season. Going into their season finale at Minnesota on Sunday, they’re down to Jesper Horsted (eight career receptions), J.P. Holtz (seven), Eric Saubert (six) and Bradley Sowell (one) at tight end. Two of them weren’t on the roster to start the season.
Plans B and C went out the window when 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen sputtered and Ben Braunecker suffered a season-ending concussion.
The Bears’ seven tight ends have combined for 395 yards and two touchdowns on 44 catches. There are 18 individual NFL tight ends with more yardage this season.
Holtz, a waiver claim in September, started the last three games. He’s also a part-time fullback.
Nagy banked on Burton to be a pillar of the offense after he caught 54 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns last season — the best
season by a Bears tight end since Martellus Bennett in 2014. Burton was the Bears’ fourth-most targeted receiver in 2018.
The simplest solution to the tight end problem is for Burton to come back healthy next season, but there’s no guarantee of that.
To get out of the remaining two years and $17.4 million on his contract, the Bears would have to absorb a $7.5 million dead-salary cap hit. That would make it challenging to chase top free agents such as Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry. It’s more likely they’ll look for a budget-friendly veteran and continue to bet on Burton.
The upside is that Burton has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. The risk is that the Bears endure another season like this, with a void at arguably the most important non-quarterback position in Nagy’s offense.