Lions brace for Bears' bolstered tight ends group in opener
Scanning the Chicago Bears' offseason moves, most of the additions were modest.
Arguably the team's most important transaction was locking up one of their own, inking safety Eddie Jackson to a lucrative long-term extension in early January.
Additionally on the defense, the team swapped out edge rushers, releasing former first-rounder Leonard Floyd in favor of an older, but more accomplished option in Robert Quinn. And the team found a new starting cornerback in the second-round of the draft, snagging Utah's Jaylon Johnson.
But unquestionably the most significant offseason adjustments for Chicago came at tight end. At one point, the Bears were rostering 10 players at the position. It might surprise you to learn they're still carrying five. Most noticeably, the group is far more formidable at the top than a year ago, headed by the additions of Jimmy Graham and rookie Cole Kmet, the first tight end drafted in 2020, selected No. 43 overall.
Graham, 33, is in the twilight of his career. Gone are the days of an 80-catch, 10-touchdown season, but he's still shown he can be productive. The past two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he tallied 93 grabs for nearly 1,100 yards and five scores.
"Big, huge target, great catch radius," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "He’s been doing it a long time in this league, someone that I’ve gone against for a while and have a great amount of respect for. I think he’s a tremendous player. Really comes through on a lot of got-to-have-it situations. He even did that last year at Green Bay in some critical, critical games, caught a couple big passes on third down, got-to-have-it situations, red-(zone) area.
"I think that’s a whole new element for them that they’ve really tried to get into this offense, for Coach (Matt) Nagy and relaying some of the things that they do from maybe previous stops that he’s been at where that tight end position is so critical to some of the things they do."
You don't have to dig deep into Nagy's background to understand what Patricia is referencing.
Prior to being hired by Chicago, Nagy served as Kansas City's offensive coordinator, where he helped oversee the development of five-time Pro Bowler Travis Kelce. Before that, Nagy worked under Andy Reid in Philadelphia, during a four-year stretch when Brent Celek averaged 60 receptions.
Beyond Graham, who signed a two-year contract as a free agent this offseason, the Bears also added a long-term piece in Kmet. The 6-foot-6, 262-pounder is coming off a season at Notre Dame where he caught 43 passes for 515 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games.
"This guy, he can block, so he’s going to be in there and in-line and he’s going to be doing some of the point-of-attack stuff, but he’s also a really good route runner," Patricia said. "He’s another big guy, big catch radius, that puts him in some different personnel groups."
As Patricia sees it, Graham and Kmet give the Bears more flexibility with the looks they can present.
"They can run some two-tight end sets now, and they also have (J.P.) Holtz, who was there last year, who was kind of in the backfield a little bit. So three tight ends that may look like two backs, two-tight end sets with the wide receivers, obviously then they have all the skill guys that they can use to kind of mix those personnel (groupings). I certainly think that’s something that Coach Nagy loves to do is mix the personnels — mix the formations, mix the motions to try to keep the defense on its toes."
The addition of reliable safety values for mobile quarterback Mitch Trubisky could be the key to unlocking last year's anemic offense. The Bears finished 29th in total offense and points scored a year ago.
Holtz led the team's tight ends with just 91 yards receiving in 2019. In total, Chicago got 416 yards and two touchdowns from the group.