Bears Conversion Project Could Actually Pay Off

Gene Chamberlain

After what Trey Burton showed he could do in the Bears offense during the 2018 season, it's easy to discount Jesper Horsted as someone lacking the athletic ability to accomplish something similar.

This would be jumping to a conclusion, and as an undrafted former college wide receiver he could be someone capable of fitting into future Bears plans at tight end even if they do draft a tight end or sign a free agent.

Horsted acknowledged at the end of last season he still has a ways to go just to be physically ready to play tight end after he bulked up from 227 at his pro day to 237 with the Bears.

"Actually it's probably less about weight gain, it's just about getting more strength I would say," Horsted said. "I think muscle mass is probably a bigger deal. Maybe I'd like to add 5 pounds. But more than that it's just about adding strength."

Horsted has repeatedly said blocking is where he needs to improve most. It's understandable, considering he played wide recever at Princeton.

Burton did get rated the best blocking tight end in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in 2018, so achieving a level like this would seem unlikely. However, Burton didn't come into the NFL as a polished blocker at the tight end spot, either. He wasn't even a tight end full time.

He played quarterback, fullback, tight end, wide receiver and special teams at Florida, and adapted along the way in Philadelphia and then with the Bears.

It isn't so ridiculous to think the Bears can find a tight end from the Ivy League. Cameron Brate, Anthony Firkser and the Bears' own Ben Braunecker came from the conference. Former Vikings tight end standout Steve Jordan did, as well. Horsted is actually bigger than Firkser, who played a big part for Tennessee the past two seasons.

As far as actually catching the ball, Horsted could actually rate better at this than Burton because he was so effective as a record-setting wide receiver at Princeton. He also has some physical advantages to make it possible he could be better.

Horsted is an inch taller than Burton at 6-3 1/2, which never hurts a tight end. He also has bigger hands and a longer reach, according to measurements taken at Burton's combine and Horsted's pro day.

There was only a pound separating them last season, Burton weighing in at 238.

Despite measurables, it all comes down to whether they can take what they have and play the game at a rapid pace while maintaining good health.  

Otherwise how do you explain a guy like Notre Dame's Troy Niklas, who came through the testing at an outstanding 4.55 seconds in the 40, had a 32-inch leap and was ideal size for a Y-tight end at 6-foot-6, 270. Then he got drafted in the second round by the Cardinals. He was out of the league after 19 catches and numerous injuries four seasons later.

Burton's health problems with sports hernia surgery, the missed playoff game and continued groin problems landed him on injured reserve or virtually inactive much of 2019. He underwent a hip injury aimed at the underlying cause of his groin injuries and are hoping he'll be ready by training camp.

It's easy to be skeptical after the last year.

"Hopefully we've solved it," general manager Ryan Pace said. "We all know the type of player he can be when he's healthy. We're optimistic this hopefully fixed it."

This is part of the reason the Bears are likely to add tight end help at some point in free agency or the draft. They talked with Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, Vanderbilt's Jared Pinkney and Dayton's Adam Trautman already.

The place they really need help most is at the Y-tight end spot because Adam Shaheen simply hasn't developed the way they hoped. He hasn't been the player they thought they were drafting when healthy, and hasn't been healthy enough.

At least at the other tight end spot, they have two players with the athletic ability and receiving ability required to play the position, although one is an injury question. And the other is rapidly learning the skills needed to play the spot.

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