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Are Bears Counting on Jimmy Graham Too Much?

There are several positions where Ryan Pace appears to be taking a gamble after the draft and free agency, and one of those is a position where they were very fortunate last year.

Sometimes personnel people must take gambles with their roster in the NFL.

They'd probably characterize these more as calculated risks. When they pour so much time and effort into a draft pick or free agent acquisition, they've usually determined the player's chances of filling an immediate need.

Ryan Pace made four basic gambles this year based on everything he and the scouting department from both the pro and college side could determine.

Quarterback did not really fit into this classification.

The Bears more or less fell into taking Andy Dalton. It was more a final or near-final option than gambling with a signing. They'd already missed on Russell Wilson, didn't want to meet the Eagles' asking price on Carson Wentz and a Chicago Tribune reports suggests they may have wanted Ryan Fitzpatrick over Dalton but Washington beat them to the punch. It might have been Dalton or Mitchell Trubisky again.

Either way, Fitzpatrick would not necessarily have been a measurable step up from Dalton. 

The four gambles Ryan Pace is taking vary in risk degree. At one time the list looked longer, but subsequent moves made in the offseason solidified those situations.

4. Slot Cornerback

It's a vital position, even a starting position now considering Buster Skrine was on the field 68% of the snaps in 2019 and even 52% last year when he missed four games due to concussions. The gamble taken here is coaches will draw from within inexperienced Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley and Thomas Graham Jr. and come up with one promising slot cornerback. These are not high draft picks, Vildor being a fifth-rounder and the other two sixth-rounders. 

Still, this was how the Bears came up with Bryce Callahan and he was an undrafted free agent. He emerged from a battle of younger players to take the position. The risk exists that can do this, but at least in the cases of Shelley and Vildor the Bears have seen enough of them on the field to believe they are capable.

3. Left Cornerback

At least Desmond Trufant has been a been a high-level NFL starter, even a Pro Bowl cornerback when healthy. He hasn't been healthy for a while, though. If you look beyond Trufant for a Kyle Fuller replacement you'll see only recent draft picks or castoffs from other teams, like former Steelers cornerback Artie Burns as he comes back from a torn ACL, former CFL player Tre Roberson or Xavier Crawford. The promising young cornerbacks who might fit in at slot also can enter the picture.

Pace is placing most of his chips on Trufant's ability to stay off injured reserve, and the trend says he's going to need plenty of luck to get this right. Then again, maybe the odds say a guy has to be healthy at some point.

2. Left Tackle

Starting a rookie left tackle to protect the blind side of an aging veteran at starting quarterback can be a recipe for disaster. The Bears believe in Dalton's ability to move just enough to compensate for any early mistakes by Teven Jenkins, and he has been a bit more mobile than your typical statue quarterback.

In Jenkins' case, Pace made the right move by going up to get him early in Round 2. At least the previous draft suggests waiting on a tackle is unwise. Past results are not so dramatic but do support this overall.

In the 2020 draft there were seven players regarded as tackles who were selected in the first two rounds and six of them became starters, although Ezra Cleveland's starts came at guard. After the second round there were 15 other players Pro Football Reference regarded as tackles and were drafted but none started more than half the games. Only one started half of them and that was Tyre Phillips. He started at guard.

Still, it's a risk even in an early round. For every four or five Tristan Wirfs, there is an Isaiah Wilson. He was a Jets first-rounder last year who played in one game.

The greatest risk here might not be Jenkins. It's who they have if he doesn't work out.  The identity of this person is entirely unclear.

1. Tight End

There are no ifs ands or buts about it. Pace stuck this one last year and all the Jimmy Graham haters in social media land were entirely and utterly wrong about his skills.

The narrative said Graham was too old and had nothing left but there were 19 tight ends who were 30 or older in the NFL last year and only Travis Kelce had more than Graham's total of 50 receptions. Graham had the fourth-most touchdown catches among all tight ends with eight, and the 14th most receptions overall among tight ends.

There is no doubt about the importance of this position in Matt Nagy's offense. In 2019 when they had only injured Trey Burton or one of several other injured players at the U-tight end spot, the offense seemed to collapse. Graham revived it.

Still, plenty of speculation had Graham being cut for cap purposes this year. Everyone seemed curious as each day went by about when he'd be cut. In fact, it's still going on.

"There was never any curiosity, I don’t think, within our building whether he was going to be back or not," tight ends coach Clancy Barone said. "We knew from Day 1.

"The guy led our team in touchdowns. He's, I think, No. 4 on the all-time NFL list for tight ends touchdowns and so forth for their careers. He's invaluable. He's a guy that takes phenomenal care of his body and every year of his career, he'll take off two weeks when the season is over and then he's right back into running and lifting and things like that. So he's not the kind of guy that has to get in shape. He's the guy that always stays in shape."

That the Bears are counting on Graham at the tight end spot opposite Cole Kmet again is maybe not the huge surprise their cornerback decision to cut Fuller was. However, what is surprising is how Pace hasn't covered the third tight end spot considering how important the position proved to be in 2019.

They could be flirting with disaster, and here's why.

Tight end is a dangerous position. It's big guys playing in space at their top speed. They're often not the best quick-twitch athletes or very maneuverable. They get hurt.

Players in their 30s are always more at risk to get injured.

Last year there were 19 tight ends who caught a pass and were 30 or older. Only five of them played in every game. The Bears were fortunate Graham was one of them.

The position invites injury, anyway. Of those 91 total tight ends who caught passes, only 35 of them played in every game.

So who does Pace have available as a tight end possibility opposite Kmet if Graham does do like most 30-somethings and gets injured?

Practice squad players Jesper Horsted or former college basketball player Darion Clark are the top choices. They do have J.P. Holtz but he has already been fit for a position, according to Barone, who said, "...he does a fine job as an in-line blocking tight end. He does a really nice job when he plays the fullback role as well. So yeah, we have no problems with him being somewhat versatile for us and being able to be that blocking tight end."

Holtz is the backup to Kmet or a fullback, not a move-tight end 

They've added some undrafted college free agents, but such players usually get cut or wind up on the practice squad.

The Bears are placing a lot of faith in an aging tight end at a position proven vital to this offense, and if something happens they're probably less equipped to replace him than at other positions.

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