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Bears' Tight Ends Improvement Leading To Tough Cuts

Tough cuts coming for coaches at the fourth through seventh tight end spots, as prospects for appear better for contributions from last year's problem position

Jimmy Graham has become the obvious leader of what the Bears hope will be a resurgent tight end group.

Cole Kmet is obviously the kid, the hot shot learning from Graham.

And Demetrius Harris?

"Yeah, Sloth. That's his nickname," Bears coach Matt Nagy said.

Sloth. He is long and agile, and on passes thrown up for grabs he seems to have a knack for maneuvering to pull it down.

"He just does what he is supposed to do," Nagy said. "He's doing a good job right now."

What that has consisted of is beating players in jump-ball situations in or near the end zone. Yet, Harris hasn't been limited to shorter passes in the red zone. In Wednesday's practice he went well downfield and won one jump-ball battle near the goal line.

"He's a big target," Nagy said. "All of those guys are big targets."

Graham and Kmet are 6-foot-6 and Harris 6-7.

The early days of camp found Graham setting the tone with receptions and also with energized play and celebrations. A downtrodden position group had a rallying point.

"I come from college where you're not allowed to celebrate like that, but you can here," Kmet said. "So I'm going to make the most of it.

"When we make a big play in practice, we're going to celebrate and have fun with it. We're going to have a lot of fun in the end zone. Taking that energy, and that bleeds into the next thing, whether that goes into one-on-ones to team run or team run to a full-team segment, those things transition to one another."

Graham's emotional leadership has been valued, and coaches see the importance of maintaining his presence in the lineup. At 33, they need to give him occasional time off and did get him two days off in the last week.

"I don’t think that being in shape is ever going to be an issue with a guy like Jimmy," tight ends coach Clancy Barone said. "The one thing is I have to protect Jimmy from Jimmy. I have to keep him on a pitch count, so to speak."

The tight ends have come far enough that the safeties covering them are talking about how being tested daily is helping them in practice. No one would have suggested this when the tight ends were practically invisible all last season.

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"Him being around and in the game for so long, there's a lot of different things he's done that I haven't really seen in practice going up against other tight ends," safety Eddie Jackson said.

Beyond those first three tight ends, the Bears will have tough choices to make when they cut the roster next weekend. The number of tight ends on the roster could very well vary from three to five.

In terms of opportunities and making plays on the football in pratice, Jesper Horsted had a slow start but within the last five days seemed to take a step up. A perfectly thrown deep ball he caught over the middle from Mitchell Trubisky in full scrimmage seemed to trigger this.

Eric Saubert made more plays early in camp than Horsted but hasn't had as many lately. 

J.P. Holtz has been quiet as a receiver throughout camp, and his value as a backfield blocker seems to be getting a challenge now, as well. Coming into camp it seemed one area of play where he had value unmatched by other tight ends on the roster.

Coaches occasionally have put running back Ryan Nall in the backfield in a lead-blocker role or H-back, and before David Montgomery's injury it might have been a way they could justify cutting Holtz.

With Montgomery out for a reported 2-4 weeks, Nall might be too busy at running back to be playing the lead blocker.

There is one other tight end who it's safe to assume will be a cut victim, but could return as a developmental practice squad player.

That's former Kentucky wide receiver Ahmad Wagner.

After the Bears put tight end and former college basketball player Darion Clark on injured reserve (shoulder) they changed Clark's jersey number from 2 to 49 without saying anything about his position. They don't give wide receivers jerseys in the 40s, but tight ends sometimes have them.

Before each practice, Wagner can be found on the field with one to three other tight ends learning the footwork required to do routes tight ends run, or to make steps required to throw a seal block on the edge.

It's a far cry from last year when the starters were limping and the guys in the lineup were still trying to learn the playbook because they'd just been picked up off the waiver wire scrap heap.

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