Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season. 

How Adam Shaheen can make an immediate impact as a rookie for Bears

How Adam Shaheen can make an immediate impact as a rookie for Bears

While Adam Shaheen was one of the most impressive Bears on the field during last week’s veteran minicamp, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It's unlikely the guy who was dubbed “Baby Gronk” earlier this year won’t immediately become an elite NFL tight end.

“Gronk is pretty polished so I’m not going to disrespect Gronk like that,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said, laughing when a reporter tried to lead him to comparing Shaheen to Rob Gronkowski. “But he has a lot of upside.”

The “but” there comes from what Freeman and the rest of the Bears saw last week and during OTAs. Shaheen hardly looked like someone struggling to make the competitive jump from Division II to the NFL, with the 6-foot-6, 278 pound Ashland alum making a handful of impressive plays during the course of the shorts-and-helmets workouts. 

“You see him out here catching fade balls and wreaking havoc there on the inside,” Freeman said. “He has a lot of intangibles. He has a lot of upside. I think he’s going to be a pretty good guy.”

An important note for Shaheen’s smooth transition is that he was part of a pro-style offense at Ashland, which gave him some familiarity with the concepts thrown at him by position coach Frank Smith and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. While plenty of other highly-drafted tight ends played at college football’s top level, plenty of those FBS/Power Five programs ran shotgun-spread offenses that frequently split the tight end wide and rarely required that player to stick his hand in the dirt next to a tackle. 

So there’s sort of a trade-off there. Shaheen didn’t face stiff competition — in his college tape, it’s borderline absurd how much better he was than the opposition — but he played in the “right” system. 

“He's picked things up very quick,” coach John Fox said. “He’s smart, he's big.”

Fox pointed to Shaheen needing to improve his blocking technique, which is a frequent area of growth for most rookie tight ends (even Dion Sims, regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL today, wasn’t good in that area coming out of Michigan State). Whatever strides Shaheen makes as a blocker will have to come in training camp, when he can actually get physical with pads on against opposing defenders. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

As for the impact Shaheen can make this year, he should be able to be a red zone threat for the Mike Glennon-led Bears offense. We’ll have a better idea of what kind of a player he can be this season when the Bears report to Bourbonnais in July, but exiting the May and June offseason program, Shaheen is confident he can be a valuable player this fall. 

“When we put the pads on and see what I’m made of, I think so,” Shaheen said. 

“… The main thing is just learning and not thinking, just playing. That’s the biggest transition. I’m getting more comfortable by the more reps in practice I get.”

Dion Sims explains why he 'loved' Bears' draft pick of Adam Shaheen

Dion Sims explains why he 'loved' Bears' draft pick of Adam Shaheen

The Bears double-dipped in free agency and the draft at three positions this year: Quarterback (Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky), safety (Quintin Demps and Eddie Jackson) and tight end (Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen). Drafting Trubisky necessitated a conversation between the front office and Glennon to affirm it's still his year

“You’re not really excited, whether it was outside linebackers a year ago or wide receivers the year before,” coach John Fox said. “And you allow them that.”

Dion Sims, who signed a three-year, $18 million contract this spring, doesn’t sound like someone who needed that same talk when the Bears drafted Shaheen with the 45th pick. 

“I loved it,” Sims said. “He’s a big guy, (6-foot-6, 277 pounds), it was exciting just to have him here and the things that he can do to help us.

“I feel like he brings a lot to the table and creates mismatches and trouble for opposing safeties and linebackers. It’s great news and it’s exciting for him to come and be under all the tight ends and learning.”

Of course, only one quarterback can be on the field at a time, while there are plenty of scenarios that’ll have both Sims and Shaheen on the field over the next few years. The Bears guaranteed $10 million to Sims in his three-year, $18 million contract, so the 26-year-old has job security regardless of how quickly Shaheen develops. 

Sims is regarded as one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL, but he wasn’t always proficient in that area of his game. NFL.com’s draft profile of him back in 2013 included the line “Not a mauling blocker like his size would indicate,” which is similar to this in NFL.com’s draft writeup on Shaheen: “Needs work as run blocker but has desired frame of a Y-tight end.”

Sims said becoming a good blocking tight end mostly involves having the “will and want” to develop the right technique. Like Sims as a rookie, Shaheen already has the size and bulk necessary to become a quality blocker. 

How quickly Shaheen makes an impact on the Bears offense depends on how he develops as a blocker, but more importantly, on how quickly he picks up the concepts of Dowell Loggains’ system. Sims sees a bright future for the Division II product if Shaheen can pick things up in both of those areas. 

“I think he’s doing a great job so far,” Sims said. “His head is swimming right now for all the stuff he has to learn with the offense. I remember my rookie year it was the same way. I’m pretty sure he’ll play a lot faster — he’s playing pretty fast right now. But once he picks up the offense, he’s going to be special.”