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Bears Can Use Another Tight End, Except ...

Tight end Jesse James appears to be a signing the Bears can benefit from but it's possible there are drawbacks to this move, and one might be the fact they needed the money for talent elsewhere.

Someone might look at the signing of tight end Jesse James by the Bears and wonder what on earth they're doing because they already have more tight ends than they need.

This someone would have a short memory or a lot of faith in knee surgeries.

James has a few qualities which make it apparent he could be around the team in the future after veteran tight end Jimmy Graham has retired.

In fact, this signing might make some think Graham is destined to be cut so the team can save $7 million but that would be unlikely at this late point. If they planned to do this, it would have already happened because James has been a free agent since being cut for cap purposes by the rebuilding Lions.

The Fit with Jesse James

James, a 27-year-old former Penn State player, is 6-foot-7 like Graham and that fits right into the red-zone target look that the Bears sought last year when they drafted 6-6 Cole Kmet, signed Graham and also signed 6-7 Demetrius Harris, a free agent who was not brought back.

With Graham turning 35 during this season and without a contract for 2022, the chance for James to fit in for the future is there. 

However, he's not exactly an ideal U-style tight end for the Bears offense. His skills seem more related to the in-line position or the Y-tight end in the Bears offense like Kmet plays.

James started 11 games in Detroit in 2019 but was a starter in Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. When he started the 11 games for the Lions it was largely before T.J. Hockenson had a firm grasp on the game as a rookie. His snaps then began to decline last year.

What the Bears can get from James to a greater degree than they have had from either Graham or Kmet is blocking.

Although James wasn't an elite blocker, he graded out better at it last year than both Graham and Kmet and was 36th overall out of 76 tight ends graded by Pro Football Focus. Both Kmet and Graham were below him in blocking.

PFF's rather dubious run-blocking grades for tight ends must be taken into account. They had Trey Burton ranked 14th, and anyone who saw Burton at his best in Chicago knows this is unrealistic. If Burton was so good as a run blocker, he'd have been signed by a team by now instead of being a free agent this late in the game.

GM Ryan Pace had always liked former Saints tight end Josh Hill because of his blocking skills and once tried signing him as a restricted free agent, but the offer sheet was matched. Hill was available this offseason but Pace couldn't get him. After the Lions signed Hill as a free agent, he retired.

So perhaps James is the next-best thing as a blocking tight end acquisition.

Cash and Other Costs

The Bears signed James for a nominal fee, a guaranteed total of $1.65 million according to a league source.

Speaking of Burton, this brings us back to the reason anyone would wonder why they need so many tight ends.

What the Bears might like almost as much about James as his blocking is his availability. After his rookie year, he never missed a game.

The Bears are only two years removed from a season when Burton and Adam Shaheen were regular visitors to the trainer's room and wound up on injured reserve, leaving the team with little production at the position. Burton didn't even play in the most important Bears game of all, the double-doink 2018 playoff loss.

When Burton and Shaheen wound up on injured reserve in 2019, backup Ben Braunecker also finished there. The Bears had only 46 receptions from all their tight ends combined because they couldn't stay healthy.

Fast-forward to this season, and those who might wonder about James would be thinking about how the team had just signed Jake Butt earlier this offseason. He essentially is the same type of player.

Butt has gone through four major knee surgeries. Even often-injured former Bears tight end Zach Miller didn't have that kind of a past injury problems. Four knee surgeries take a toll.

A few years ago they laughed about how the Bears had 11 tight ends on the offseason roster because they could actually field an entire side of tight ends if they wanted.

There are only seven on the roster at the moment: James, Graham, Kmet, J.P. Holtz, Butt, Scooter Harrington and Jesper Horsted.

The past has shown it isn't necessarily enough, and with that group it looks like they could find enough productivity for this season in several ways.

However, they might have been smarter to simply devote some of their money to signing Steven Nelson or Brian Poole, the last of the experienced, productive free agents who were still available. 

They both signed within the last few days, Nelson in Philadelphia and Poole in New Orleans. 

The Bears are trying to get by with three largely untested players and an aging, injured veteran in Desmond Trufant at cornerback and slot cornerback. Both are critical positions, more critical than tight end.

If there's one position the Bears look paper thin at in terms of experience, it's cornerback and not tight end.

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