By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – The Bears could line up with just 28 combined receptions at tight end against the Packers on Sunday. While that proposition may sound alarming, there’s a strong semblance of hope in what could come.
Each of the tight end trio – Adam Shaheen, Daniel Brown and Ben Braunecker – brings the Bears potential at the position. With Zach Miller on injured reserve and Dion Sims in jeopardy of missing the game with an illness, the Bears will be looking to their three young tight ends for contributions and something more moving forward.
“It’ll just be like a normal game week, only we all get to go out there as the Three Musketeers or something like that and have fun,” Braunecker said.
Shaheen, the second-round pick in April’s draft, will likely take on the larger role Sunday. He has just one reception for two yards this season and has struggled to break through to this point.
A standout at Division-II Ashland University, Shaheen struggled getting acclimated to a dramatically different NFL game. He flashed in the offseason and training camp, but the speed of the game becomes different once the regular season begins. During the Chicago’s 20-12 loss in New Orleans two weeks ago, Shaheen was targeted in the end zone on a key third-down play, where he was easily disrupted by Saints veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro.
That play was another example of how Shaheen has struggled early on. Despite the steep learning curve, Shaheen has made an impression on Bears coach John Fox.
“The game’s slowed down for him,” Fox said. “It’s obviously an adjustment coming from college, any college to the NFL. I’ve seen he’s got the ability, he’s got the talent. Now it’s just understanding where he fits and what we’re asking him to do, what he does and how he executes it. I’ve seen steady improvement through halfway through our season.”
Among the leading benefits to starting Shaheen is his rapport with fellow rookie Mitchell Trubisky. The two developed a bond after being drafted in consecutive rounds by the Bears and began working toward an on-field connection. If Sims is indeed unable to play, the Bears could lean on Shaheen for mismatches.
Brown and Braunecker offer options to fill the void left by Miller, who remains hospitalized after emergency vascular surgery on his left leg.
The loss of the 33-year-old Miller was crushing to the tight end room, as he developed close relationships with each of his young teammates, often taking them out to dinner and inviting them to his home. Miller was transferred this week to a Chicago-area hospital, where he can be closer to family and teammates.
Miller was placed on injured reserve Tuesday just as Sims developed an apparent illness. Sims has been present this week at Halas Hall, Fox said, and his status for Sunday’s game is questionable despite not practicing during the week.
Brown joined the Bears in 2016 after being claimed from the Ravens. He played in six contests last season, recording 16 catches for 124 yards and his first career touchdown. Braunecker was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and has played in just 13 career games, all last season. He has spent 2017 on the team’s practice squad before being promoted to the active roster this week when Miller was placed on injured reserve.
Come Sunday at Soldier Field, it’s likely that the Bears will be leaning on their inexperienced tight end group.
“You just have to have faith that your time will come — whenever that is, you don’t know,” Braunecker said. “In this business, everybody is one play away from never playing again. It’s the common phrase. So you just have to be ready at all times and always have the dedication, the discipline to keep preparing, even though you’re not getting any recognition on the field or playing at all. You just have to keep grinding away and have faith that your time will come.”
Added Brown: “You hate to see one of your friends go down, but it’s a next-man-up mentality. I do see it as an opportunity to show where I’ve grown from last year. It’s just a good opportunity to showcase my skills.”
Trubisky has been desperately searching for targets in his passing game ever since becoming the Bears’ starting quarterback. He has gone 38-of-80 in four starts, doing so without limited options at receiver. Miller became the steady option for Trubisky in the passing game, but his season is over. Trubisky needs targets who can separate.
With that in mind, the Bears’ tight end trio – The Three Muskateers, if you will – hopes to do what no other target can and help Trubisky in the passing game.
“One way to establish yourself as a go-to target is to be open, and then when the ball’s thrown your way, make the contested catch,” Brown said. “If it’s not a perfect ball, have the quarterback’s trust knowing that if he puts it anywhere near you, you’re going to get it.”