Bears make shaky plans at crucial position with TEs Trey Burton, Jimmy Graham

There are concerns about whether Burton can return to what he was in 2018 after dealing with major injury trouble, and Graham is clearly in decline as he approaches 34.

SHARE Bears make shaky plans at crucial position with TEs Trey Burton, Jimmy Graham
Last season was Jimmy Graham’s worst since his rookie year: 38 catches, 447 yards, three touchdowns.

Last season was Jimmy Graham’s worst since his rookie year: 38 catches, 447 yards, three touchdowns.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Bears general manager Ryan Pace is taking an enormous risk at a crucial position.

Plan A is to hope Trey Burton snaps back after a year-plus of surgeries and rehab and plays like he did in 2018.

Plan B is to bet against a wealth of evidence that says former All-Pro Jimmy Graham doesn’t have much left in the tank.

The best outcome for the Bears is a Burton and Graham renaissance, but the worst is they end up looking a lot like they did at tight end last season, when J.P. Holtz started seven games and Jesper Horsted and Ben Braunecker tied for the team lead in touchdown catches at the position with one apiece.

That would be a scary situation for coach Matt Nagy, regardless of how things turn out at quarterback.

The guy the Bears really wanted, the one who probably would’ve solved this problem, was two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper from the Falcons.

Pace still laments bypassing him in the third round of the 2016 draft in favor of defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, and he compounded the error by blowing a second-round pick on Adam Shaheen the next year.

It was evident a month ago, however, that they weren’t willing to pay up for Hooper. Given that this was his first chance at a big payday, it was reasonable to expect he’d go to the highest bidder. He agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with the Browns.

Graham, meanwhile, cost the Bears $16 million over two years with $9 million of that guaranteed. That’s cheaper but still questionable. It’s close to the same average annual money that the Packers gave him in 2018 coming off back-to-back Pro Bowls.

Green Bay cut Graham with one year left on his deal after he slipped to 38 catches, 447 yards and three touchdowns. While that’s better than all of the Bears’ 2019 tight ends combined, it was Graham’s worst season since his rookie year.

He’ll turn 34 during the upcoming season, and it seems like the Bears are the last team to realize he’s done. It would have been interesting to see what the market held for Graham had the Bears not pounced Monday. He already had been available several days at that point.

Burton, on the other hand, was a smart signing by Pace in 2018. Pace has made some errors, especially on offense, but this wasn’t one of them. It was the right price for the right player, and Burton rewarded that commitment with a career year of 54 catches, 569 yards and six touchdowns.

That was thought to be just the beginning for a player still on the rise, but Burton hasn’t been right since pulling out of the playoff game against the Eagles with what he thought was a strained groin muscle.

It turned out to be much worse than that, and he underwent surgery a second consecutive offseason after just 14 catches in eight games. He’s still only 28 and he’s obviously talented, but it’s impossible to predict whether he’ll get back to where he was before the injuries.

“Our hope is that we finally kinda solved the issue and that there’s an upward trajectory now with him,” Pace said last month. “That’s our hope.”

Hope is great, but certainty is better. And right now, at the most important non-quarterback position in Nagy’s offense, the Bears have very little of the latter.

Even with modest expectations for Burton and Graham, there’s a big drop-off beyond those two. Their other offseason signing at tight end was Demetrius Harris, whose career high in catches is 18. Shaheen has 26 catches in 27 games over three years. The others have even less on their résumés, and anyone they might draft next month will probably need at least a year to get acclimated.

Putting it gently, this is a very dicey way to proceed into a make-or-break season.

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