The Chicago Bears tight end position was a disappointment last season, as Zach Miller started just eight games before finishing the year on IR.
The oft-injured Miller will be 33 at the start of the 2017 regular season, which is why the Bears signed veteran TE Dion Sims in free agency. Yet Sims, who had a career high 26 catches last season, is unlikely to take Chicago's passing attack to the next level.
As a result, expect GM Ryan Pace to pursue a tight end during this year's draft, possibly within the first three rounds.
Let's break down his options.
O.J. Howard, Alabama (6-6, 251)
Howard is one of the most athletically gifted tight ends to emerge from the collegiate ranks in quite some time. He put on a show at the 2017 NFL Scouting combine, posting at or near the top of his position in the 40-yard dash (4.51), bench press (22), three-cone drill (6.85), short shuttle (4.16) and long shuttle (11.46). Despite his talent, Howard did not post elite numbers in college (45-595-3 in 2016) and saw his playing time diminish from his junior to senior season. Most blame his lack of production on the scheme and coaching staff at Alabama, because Howard is clearly an elite pass-catching tight end. Some question is his desire to play the game but if he's committed, he'll have an All-Pro career at the next level. While it's unlikely, Howard is a sleeper option for the Bears at No. 3 overall.
Projected: Top 10
David Njoku, Miami (6-4, 246)
Njoku officially started just nine games during his three seasons at Miami but he was a regular weapon in the passing attack. In 2016, he posted 43 catches, 698 yards and 8 receiving TDs, showing off his prowess in the red zone (he was a national high jump champion in high school). He then had a strong showing at the combine, which has propelled Njoku into the first-round conversation. In terms of athleticism, he's a close second behind Howard and Njoku was more productive in college. He's still inexperienced at his position but Njoku shows all the signs of a top-tier pass-catching tight end at the next level. Unfortunately for the Bears, it appears unlikely he'll fall to the second round.
Projected: 1st Round
Evan Engram, Ole Miss (6-3, 234)
Engram earned first-team All-SEC and numerous All-American honors after a 2016 campaign in which he caught 65 passes for 926 yards and 8 TDs. He then went to the combine and ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. Engram doesn't have elite size or length (he played at 216 pounds last season) but he has the speed and quickness to be a mismatch nightmare in the NFL. He's experienced out of the slot and shows great burst out of his breaks, with sticky hands. Engram is considered a borderline first-round pick and if he falls to the Bears, who have the fourth pick in the second round, it's going to be hard for Pace to pass on arguably the best move tight end in this class.
Projected: 1st-2nd Round
Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6-6, 278)
A small-school prospect, Shaheen was absolutely dominant at Ashland. In 2015 he caught 70 passes (a D-2 record) for 803 yards and 10 TDs. He then caught 57 passes for 867 yards and a school-record 16 TDs in 2016. Shaheen had a relatively disappointing combine (he ran a 4.79) but the film shows a big, athletic pass catcher who manhandled the competition in college. He has a powerful frame and great upper-body strength, which should allow him to grow as a blocker once he refines his technique. As a pass catcher with plenty of room for growth, Shaheen could be a nice addition to Chicago's offense.
Projected: 2nd Round
Gerald Everett, South Alabama (6-3, 239)
Like current Bears RB Jordan Howard, Everett was forced to transfer from Alabama-Birmingham after the school shut down its football program. He started two years for South Alabama, earning first-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2015 (41-575-8) and 2016 (49-717-4). At the combine, Everett posted well in every single drill, showing off his top-tier athleticism. He's dangerous as a pass catcher, particularly after the catch, but he's an even better blocker, which makes him a very attractive option for the Bears in the third round.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
Jake Butt, Michigan (6-5, 246)
Butt was named the Big Ten Conference Tight End in both 2015 (61-654-3) and 2016 (46-546-4). Butt is a reliable pass-catching target who excels on underneath and intermediate routes. He has good hands and runs solid routes, although he doesn't have the straight line speed to hurt teams deep down the seam. He needs to improve as a blocker but that should come with time. The biggest concern with Butt, and the reason he's considered a borderline second-round pick, is due to the torn ACL he suffered in the Citrus Bowl.
Projected: 2nd-3rd Round
Jordan Leggett, Clemson (6-5, 258)
In 2016, Leggett was named first-team All-ACC and a finalist for the John Mackey Award following a 40-525-8 campaign. He's a crisp route runner with the athleticism and body control to be a weapon as an NFL pass catcher. He doesn't bring much as a blocker and there are concerns about his desire for the game, as he's a self-described "lazy" player. The right coaching staff will be crucial for Leggett.
Projected: 3rd Round
George Kittle, Iowa (6-4, 247)
Kittle didn't post eye-popping number for the Hawkeyes (22-314-4 in 2016) but he has good speed (4.52) and showed well as a pass catcher. As a potential H-back in the NFL, Kittle can be a weapon in the passing game but his greatest value comes from his ability as a blocker, where he's technically sound and gives maximum effort. Kittle is a very attractive option for the Bears in the third round, as he could help take Jordan Howard and Chicago's rushing attack to the next level.
Projected: 3rd-4th Round
The Pick: Evan Engram
Engram doesn't have the size of Howard or Njoku but he's every bit as talented a pass catcher. He lined up all over the field for the Rebels, including out wide and in the slot.
Opposing linebackers and safeties will struggle to match Engram's short-area quickness and burst, which will make him a matchup nightmare in the NFL. If Engram falls to the second round, Pace would be silly to pass him up.