Adam Shaheen has an excellent opportunity to let his play in Year 3 do the talking, but so far it’s his injuries that have formed the NFL narrative of the D-II Ashland University product taken 45th overall in the 2017 NFL draft.
A chest injury in Week 13 that year halted Shaheen’s quiet rookie season but best NFL game to date: four catches, 44 yards and a nifty one-yard touchdown, punctuating what at the time was also Mitch Trubisky’s finest hour in a road rout of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Shaheen returned healthy last summer, even offering a few glimpses in Bourbonnais that he could be the Bears' version of Travis Kelce: an imposing mismatch tight end who can line up anywhere and win with size, strength and speed.
But coming off a personal-best 5-53 receiving in Week 2 of the 2018 preseason — also in Cincinnati, a short drive from his hometown of Sunbury — Shaheen suffered a right foot injury on the opening drive in Denver. It would cost him the first 10 regular-season games and require Shaheen to play “on one foot, really” over the final seven (he quickly sustained a concussion upon returning in Week 11 and missed Thanksgiving in Detroit on a short week four days later).
Ironically, it was teammate Trey Burton’s groin injury in January that required surgery and helped shift the focus back to Shaheen this spring, when he was among the Bears offseason standouts.
“I like where [Shaheen’s] mind is at,” Bears TE coach Kevin Gilbride recently told PFW. “I think he’s now training himself to get back in the mindset of, when I’m out there practicing, I’m not just going through the motions of trying not to get injured; I’m out there attacking like it’s a game situation. I’m getting my body ready to go. I’m training myself the right way, rather than getting into bad habits.
“He takes a while to get into that frame of mind. But he’s getting there now, which is great.”
We’ll likely never know to what extent injuries slowed Shaheen’s development. Although conventional wisdom suggested his learning curve from Ashland to the pros would be particularly steep, GM Ryan Pace said the night he drafted the 6-foot-6, 270-pound two-way TE prospect that he wasn’t worried about the transition and the Bears projected him as an early contributor.
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Suffice to say, Pace hoped Shaheen’s contributions thus far would surpass 17 catches for 175 yards and four touchdowns in 12 starts among his 20 games. But the Bears have no intentions of giving up hope now with Shaheen in the crosshairs and TE depth rating among the club’s few legitimate concerns.
After all, there are once again tangible signs that a breakout for a player who has mostly endured tough NFL breaks could be on the near horizon.
“He’s a kid that is trying to figure out, we’re trying to figure out, what routes, what concepts do we like,” Nagy said. “What’s he do best? So we could work off of his strengths and then whatever weaknesses he has, we’ll either stay away from them or we’ll try to get better. But it’s a good problem for me as an offensive play caller that we have a lot of weapons that we will feel good about and they’re all kind of different flavors in regards to sizes and speeds and attributes. So he’s definitely one. Again, was coming on strong last year and then he had that injury.”
The Bears in fact now have a lot of weapons on offense — a sea change from Shaheen’s rookie season — but perhaps none boast a more tantalizing blend of size and athleticism. Trey Burton is a talented “move” tight end but lacks Shaheen’s strength and stature to consistently bolster a run game the Bears know needs exactly that. Also perhaps ironically, Shaheen's blocking was the area Pace said required the biggest projection, but it's been his greatest strength in the pros.
That helps explain the decision to move swing OT Bradley Sowell to "Y" tight end, a smart hedge given Shaheen’s inability to consistently stay on the field and contribute and Nagy's desire to use more two-TE alignments. To wit: the Bears utilized “12 personnel” (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) on only 18 percent of the total snaps last season, two points below the league average and far less than Nagy's two closest play-calling confidants, Andy Reid’s Chiefs (28 percent) and Doug Pederson’s Eagles (35 percent), per Sharp Football.
But Sowell is a 30-year-old journeyman, not a 24-year-old whom Pace picked earlier than any skill player on offense not named Kevin White over the past five years. The time has to be now for Shaheen after an offseason when the Bears tailored the offense elsewhere to fit Nagy’s preferences but only from the college ranks to address the TE position.
And cautious optimism was abound at Halas Hall that the big tight end is finally poised to reward the Bears' faith.