Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:
“Seems like the addition of Cole Kmet says Matt Nagy is planning on using a lot of two-tight-end formations. How does this compare to what the Chiefs/Eagles have been doing in the past few years? Can you comment on how different the Bears offense might look this year based on the offseason? — @roybal5598
“That’s something we should certainly see more of this season, but I’d caution you not to get carried away with the idea we’re going to see a dramatic shift. You’re talking about 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers — something that has fallen out of favor across the league the last few years. As passing offenses have exploded, we’ve seen a trend toward much more 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
“The Bears were near the bottom of the league in using 12 personnel last season. It stands to reason. Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen, their top two tight ends entering the season, struggled to stay healthy or perform when they were on the field. The result was the Bears ranked 28th with 123 snaps in 12 personnel. That was a big drop-off from Nagy’s first season, when they ranked 11th with 182 snaps. So we’re talking about 59 snaps being the difference between near the bottom of the league and on the verge of the top 10. Over the course of a season, that’s fewer than four snaps per game.
“Here’s how the Chiefs and Eagles ranked the last two seasons:
2019 Chiefs: 299 snaps in 12 personnel, third in NFL
2018 Chiefs: 274 snaps in 12 personnel, third in NFL
2019 Eagles: 528 snaps in 12 personnel, most in NFL
2018 Eagles: 347 snaps in 12 personnel, second in NFL
“The Eagles made a huge jump last season, but that was need-based more than anything. Injuries decimated their depth chart at wide receiver and forced them to adjust with personnel groupings, leaning more on multiple tight ends.
“With Jimmy Graham and Kmet in the mix, Nagy will be able to return to using more 12 personnel, which he likes to do. It should allow the Bears to create more gaps in the running game to defend. It’s also a great package to throw out of when the defense adjusts to defend the run. It can make it easier to max protect in order to take deep shots downfield or in the play-action game. It gives the quarterback big bodies to throw to in the middle of the field, the kind of easy completions any quarterback needs.
“What the Bears don’t have is Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz, so I don’t know that they’re going to shoot to the top of that list. But if Graham and Kmet can play well, there are questions about the depth at wide receiver and running more 12 personnel would reduce the need to rely on a third wide receiver as much. Their third wide receiver last season in terms of catches was Taylor Gabriel with 29. The hope is that Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie Darnell Mooney can combine to produce a good bit more than that.”
I would go even farther than Biggs and suggest that the ability to go to 12 personnel was the single most important missing component in the offense last year and the year before. Though I doubt Mitch Trubisky would have been great, I would suggest he would have been decidedly better if the Bears had had even one tight end that they could have relied on. The possibility of the run with two good tight ends would have reduced the degree to which teams shifted around to confuse Trubisky after the snap.
A couple years ago I came across this article written by Brian Solomon at The Athletic just after the Eagles had drafted Dallas Goedert in the second round of the NFL draft. The Eagles were receiving heavy criticism from their fans for the pick, much like the flack Bears general manager Ryan Pace is getting from some quarters after the Kmet pick.
This article made for fascinating reading and gave great insight into how the Andy Reid tree of coaches uses the tight end.
“If anything from the Eagles’ 2018 draft has drawn criticism, it’s Howie Roseman and company spending their only pick in the first three rounds on a tight end. Yes, the team said goodbye to both Brent Celek and Trey Burton in March. But Zach Ertz, fresh off his first Pro Bowl selection and a Super Bowl-winning touchdown reception, is signed through 2021.”
“It’s a fair question. The answer lies in how the Eagles used multiple-tight end formations as a critical passing weapon, which they unleashed in high-leverage moments. Let’s take a look.
“The first thing to know about the Eagles and their tight ends is that — compared to most of the other 31 NFL teams — the Eagles don’t hesitate to run with one tight end on the field or pass with two tight ends. In snaps prior to the red zone, the Eagles used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) at about a league-average clip. Yet the average team in 11 personnel passed 69 percent of the time, while the Eagles were more conservative, calling a pass on 60 percent of plays. In 12 personnel, the average team’s willingness to throw dropped precipitously to 45 percent, while the Eagles’ tendencies were relatively unchanged at 57 percent pass plays — the second-highest rate behind only Doug Pederson’s old team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
“What these tendencies show is that when most teams swapped out a wide receiver for a second tight end, they generally planned to run and wanted to gain a blocking edge. The Eagles, by contrast, were more balanced. Whether their four non-running back skill players were wide receivers or tight ends largely didn’t affect their play-calling.”
“While the average NFL team only used two or three tight ends in the red zone about a third of the time, the Eagles deployed multiple tight ends on 41 percent of red-zone snaps. Pederson then called pass plays on 52 percent of those plays compared to a 35 percent league average. The result: 16 touchdown receptions and 0 interceptions on just 32 passes. That includes six touchdowns on eight passes with three or more tight ends (or an extra offensive lineman) in the game. Granted, the Eagles’ red-zone offense was effective throwing out of nearly any formation last year. But that scorching success rate stands out no matter how you slice it.”
Of course, the Eagles have Ertz, a wonderful Pro Bowl tight end, to rely upon. Still, Solomon also points out that the other two Eagles tight ends in 2017 were not created equal. Check out the production by each combination on the field in this table:
The statistics indicate that the offensive production jumped to 7.7 yards per pass and 5.6 yards per carry when Ertz was paired with Burton compared to 3.2 and 3.9 when paired with the aging Celek.
That success continued in the playoffs as the Ertz-Burton combination produced 8.9 yards per play including 9.7 yards per pass on the way to the Lombardi Trophy with Nick Foles under center.
I’m not suggesting that the combination of an aging Graham and rookie Kmet will produce like the Eagles did with Ertz on the field. But what the Eagles did out of two tight ends tells the story when you consider that the position has been a priority with Matt Nagy. Put Tarik Cohen on the field with them and you put defenses in a bind as they need to consider the possibility of the run even as they choose who to cover with a linebacker.
The Bears haven’t produced at this position under Nagy. But if things come together, the possibilities are there.