Chicago Bears 2016 Draft Preview: Tight End (Rounds 1-3)

The Chicago Bears are in the market for a new tight end, particularly one from this year's draft class. We break down in detail the top tight ends in the 2016 NFL Draft class.

The Chicago Bears have a deceptively big need at tight end.

As I've reported for the past three-plus months, the Bears are ready to move on from tight end Martellus Bennett, who was little more than a headache last season

Plan B is Zach Miller, who emerged as a viable No. 1 option last season. Yet Miller carries a lot of risk and recently said he's looking to make $5 million next season, which is a hefty price tag for a 31-year-old who is one strong gust of wind away from being injured. 

It's not hard to foresee the Bears trading Bennett and letting Miller walk, which would leave nothing but vacancy at the tight end position. 

As such, the Bears were paying close attention to the tight ends during last week's 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. 

With that in mind, let's break down the tight ends in this year's draft class who are projected to come off the board in the first three rounds. 

Hunter Henry, Arkansas (6-5, 253)

Henry was a highly productive three-year starter for the Razorbacks. As a junior in 2015 he was named All-SEC after catching 51 passes for 739 yards and 3 TDs. For his efforts, he was awarded the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. Henry is a fluid route runner who gets in and out of his breaks very quickly. He's a mismatch nightmare for opposing linebackers. He also has outstanding hands and didn't drop a single pass last season. He's not an elite blocker but he can get the job done on the edge, meaning he won't have to come off the field on run downs. Henry chose to forego all tests at the combine other than the bench press (13 reps, which is poor) so there are still some concerns about his overall level of athleticism. He also looked disinterested and sloppy in the field drills, which is concerning. Still, at the end of the day, Henry is by far the top all-around tight end in this year's class, which is very weak at the position. Bears brass met formally with Henry during the combine, which shows clear interest. If Henry falls to the Bears in the 2nd round, GM Ryan Pace is going to give him strong consideration. 
Projected: 1st-2nd Round

Austin Hooper, Stanford (6-4, 248)

Hooper leaves Stanford as a redshirt sophomore. In two years as a starter he compiled a combined 74 catches for 937 yards and 8 TDs. He's considered a "move" tight end but he showed pretty well as an in-line blocker for the Cardinal. A "hands" catcher, he doesn't allow balls to get to his chest. He's also exceptional after the catch, which should make him a dangerous weapon on screens and underneath routes, particularly on 3rd down. Hooper needs to work on his hands, as he dropped 9 passes (11 percent drop rate) the past two years. He also needs to improve his technique as a blocker. He tested well at the combine (4.72 40-yard dash, 19 bench press reps, 7.00 three-cone) and showed well in the field drills. If the Bears aren't able to acquire Henry in the 2nd round, Hooper would make a solid consolation prize.  
Projected: 2nd Round

Nick Vannett, Ohio State (6-5, 256)

After a redshirt freshman season, Vannett played in 40 straight games the following three years, starting three. In 2015, he had just 19 catches for 162 yards and 0 TDs, following a 19-catch, 220-yard, 5-TD campaign in 2014. He wasn't heavily used at Ohio State but the talent is still there. Vannett showed very well at the Senior Bowl and showed good quickness at the combine (4.20 short shuttle). He's a quality blocker who can line up anywhere on the field and help an offense. He demonstrates good athleticism on film and isn't afraid to make the tough catches over the middle. He showed in 2014 his prowess in the red zone, which is a plus. He doesn't create much separation in his routes and will never be an elite pass catcher, but he could develop into a dependable, three-down security blanket for Jay Cutler. 
Projected: 3rd Round

Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky (6-4, 243)

Higbee started out as a wide receiver before adding weight and transitioning to tight end his sophomore season. As a senior in 2015, he caught 38 passes for 563 yards and 8 TDs, which tied for the most scores by a tight end in the nation. He has strong hands and can make the tough catches in traffic. He's also a solid blocker who is physical in the run game and finishes his blocks. A knee injury plagued Higbee last year and forced him to sit out the combine, so his medical tests will be tellling. He's a good all-around tight end who doesn't excel in any area, although he's above average as an in-line blocker. Higbee could be very good value if he drops to the 4th round. 
Projected: 3rd-4th Round

The Pick

Austin Hooper: The odds of Henry falling out of the 1st round are slim, so if the Bears want to invest heavily in a young tight end, Hooper makes the most sense. He's proven very capable as a pass catcher and was far more impressive at the combine than Henry. Hooper isn't a great blocker but he's serviceable and his acceleration at the snap will give him a leg up on opposing linebackers and safeties. He compares favorably to another former Standford tight end, Coby Fleener, who has been productive for the Colts when healthy. 


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