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Bears bail on Trey Burton at wrong time as shaky plan at TE gets shakier

There’s no clear replacement on their roster, and it’s a weak year for tight ends in the draft. So why cut Burton now?

Burton went from a career year in 2018 to 14 catches last season.
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In his effort to sweep all of his mistakes out of the shed during his spring cleaning, general manager Ryan Pace went a little too far.

It made perfect sense to move on from Leonard Floyd and do anything to get better at quarterback, but he bailed too early on tight end Trey Burton, who has been an easy scapegoat over the past year.

This was the wrong time to give up on him.

“As we took a full evaluation of our roster after free agency and factored everything in, that was the best decision for us,” Pace said Tuesday. “He had a good first year for us, but unfortunately for him and for us, the injuries kind of added up.”

The Bears cut Burton on Friday, putting him in the waived/injured category and designating him as a post-June 1 release. That allows them to spread his $7.5 million dead salary-cap hit over two years.

It’s cheaper than the $17.4 million they would’ve owed him the next two seasons, but the Bears could’ve given Burton the 2020 season to re-establish himself. They still could’ve cut him for a dead-cap hit of $1.8 million.

Instead, a risky bet at tight end gets even riskier. Before last week, it looked as though the Bears’ plan was to hope Burton got back to his 2018 level — a career-best 54 catches, 569 yards and six touchdowns — and/or Jimmy Graham suddenly emerged from his three-year slide at 33.

Now it’s Graham or bust. At least that’s how the rest of the world sees it.

“There are some guys in that tight ends room that are very intriguing and interesting for us,” Pace said. “But, also, it’s a good tight end draft.”

The six returning tight ends have a combined 61 career receptions, and Demetrius Harris’ best output was 18 catches in 2017.

And almost no one thinks this is a good draft for tight ends.

The Bears’ first two selections are at Nos. 43 and 50 overall. They might very well get the best tight end in this draft, but that’s only because none is good enough to go in the first round.

And even if Pace strikes gold and lands Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet or Dayton’s Adam Trautman, it’s difficult for rookies to excel at tight end. Most of them lack the build to block at the NFL level, and it’s one of the most complicated positions in the offense.

Burton was an asset when healthy because he was an acceptable blocker, a dangerous pass catcher and one of the headiest players coach Matt Nagy had on offense.

The only knock on Burton was his health, which remains unpredictable. After essentially a lost season in 2019, he underwent hip surgery in December. He is still expected to be in football shape by August, but the Bears thought the same thing a year ago and were wrong.

But before he missed the January 2019 playoff game against the Eagles, Burton played an average of 15.4 games per season. He played 80 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps his first season.

Cutting him now doesn’t free up a boatload of money, and what would the Bears spend it on anyway? The first wave of free agency is over, and their splashy acquisitions were Graham (two years, $16 million), Nick Foles (three years, $24 million or more) and Robert Quinn (five years, $70 million).

Maybe Pace will feel out the price of trading for Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard now that Rob Gronkowski is headed to Tampa Bay, but Howard is still on an affordable rookie contract anyway.

For a team with limited options and a glaring shortfall at tight end, it would’ve been worth it to see if Burton could bounce back. The original contract wasn’t a mistake, but dumping him now is.