Bears offseason outlook: Tight end

The Bears need to decide whether to retain or release veteran Jimmy Graham this offseason.
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Editor's note: This marks the fourth piece in a series of positional outlooks for the Bears' roster entering this offseason. Click here to read the rest of them.

(670 The Score) Bears tight end Jimmy Graham lived up to his billing in 2020, providing Chicago with a needed red-zone threat and a veteran presence in the offense.

The 34-year-old Graham hauled in a team-leading eight receiving touchdowns, seven of which came inside the red zone. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Graham will be back for the second season of his two-year, $16-million contract.

The Bears must decide what's more valuable to their team -- bringing back Graham as a red-zone target or the $7 million they would have in cap savings if they release him, which they could then use to improve their roster elsewhere. Factoring into that decision is the readiness and development of 21-year-old tight end Cole Kmet, who was a second-round pick in 2020.

Here's where the Bears stand at tight end heading into the 2021.

Who’s under contract
Jimmy Graham, 34 – Graham had 50 receptions to go with his eight touchdowns in 2020 and led the Bears’ tight ends in snap count at 59%. But his playing time decreased late in the season, while Kmet’s increased.

Cole Kmet, 21 – Selected No. 43 overall by the Bears last April, Kmet came on strong late in the season and emerged as the team’s top tight end.

Darion Clark, 24 – A former college basketball player, Clark joined the Bears as a developmental player. He spent last season on injured reserve.

Free agents
Demetrius Harris, 29 – Harris was brought in as veteran depth but didn’t factor much into the offense.

J.P. Holtz, 27 – Holtz saw limited action on offense but worked in 47% of the Bears’ special teams snaps.

How they got here
After the 2019 season, the Bears overhauled their tight end position.

They released veteran Trey Burton in the offseason and traded 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen to the Dolphins while adding Graham through free agency and Kmet in the draft.

The Bears got their desired upgrade, as Graham’s 50 catches were more than the entire tight ends group’s 46 combined receptions in 2019. Kmet had 23 of his 28 catches in the final six games, when his role expanded.

Graham also proved to be a key mentor for the rookie Kmet, which was part of why the Bears believed he would be a valuable addition.

Quote to note
"We knew we weren't getting the 27-year-old Jimmy Graham from the Saints. We understood that. But we also did our evaluation of who he was and the opportunities that he had while he was in Green Bay and what he’s looking for. So, there was a fit there. But his production on the field (was) really what we thought."
-- Bears coach Matt Nagy

What’s ahead
The Bears’ biggest move at tight end would likely be a subtraction instead of an addition. Graham stands increasingly likely to be released given the Bears’ crunch against the salary cap, which is projected to be around $180 million after the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

Though Graham had half of his touchdowns in the final eight games, his role decreased while Kmet was relied upon more as the season progressed. Graham played 80% of the Bears' offensive snaps in their season opener on Sept. 13 compared to 40% in their regular-season finale on Jan. 3.

Nagy spoke of Kmet and Graham as a tandem, but the difference in roles wasn't a coincidence. If Kmet is ready to be the leading tight end, the Bears will need to fill depth in behind him. A low-cost veteran complement to Kmet will be among the Bears’ needs in free agency should they part ways with Graham.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.