Last season, tight end was one of the thinnest positions on the Chicago Bears roster.
The team put all of their eggs into the basket of Zach Miller, a talented but often-injured player who was coming off his first full NFL season since 2010. Not surprisingly, Miller played just 10 games and was placed on injured reserve in Week 12 with a foot injury.
That left the Bears with some retread backups and UDFA rookies to fill the gap at tight end.
GM Ryan Pace put considerable effort this off-season toward revamping the TE position, which includes signing Dion Sims, who played his first four NFL seasons in Miami.
“I like the group as a whole, there’s a good mix of talent," Pace said a few weeks ago. "Dion Sims was an interesting guy we added, he was more the Y. Zach [Millers'] been here for a while and has a lot of experience, he’s more the F."
The Y tight end is more of an in-line player, used primarily as a blocker and a between-the-seams pass catcher. Yet Pace believes Sims transcends the traditional Y mold.
"He’s good in space. He’s got good ability to sustain his blocks," said Pace. "He’s just a well-rounded player. Sometimes you look at these Ys and they’re one or the other — they’re a good blocker that struggles as a receiver or vice-versa. I think he can do both, and think sometimes that’s hard to find right now. He’s a well-rounded solid player."
The 26-year-old is 6-4, 271 but he moves like a smaller player and has shown great fluidity and solid hands during OTAs. In addition, Sims is widely considered one of the better run-blocking tight ends in the league.
"[Blocking] is just pretty much effort, a will and a want-to. That’s more than half the battle, the mental part," Sims told Bear Report. "I’ve got great coaches. Coaches do a great job of explaining things. They make it easy to just go out there and do it 100 miles an hour. That’s something that was stressed in college and I felt like it just carried over."
The Bears are paying Sims $5.3 million this season, and $6.3 million in each of the next two years. That's starter-level money, yet Sims has played a rotational role throughout his career and had a career-high 28 catches last season. The Bears clearly see potential in the 26-year-old but he still has plenty to prove.
In addition, Pro Football Focus ranked Sims one of the worst run-blocking tight ends in the NFL last season. Take that for what it's worth but it's still somewhat concerning.
Sims also has to split reps with incumbent starter Zach Miller, a more accomplished receiver, and second-round pick Adam Shaheen, who is making waves during OTAs.
"We have a really intriguing [tight end] room behind [the starters] with a lot of younger guys that I think have a lot of upside behind them," said Pace. "So all of a sudden the tight end room has become an area of strength for us, with a lot of variety in that room and a lot of younger guys too with upside.”
With Miller, Sims and Shaheen, the Bears have three potential starter-level tight ends, all with varying skill sets. That creates opportunities and challenges for offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who must figure out the best way to maximize each player's skill set.
"I am excited about our tight end group," Loggains said. "The addition of Dion Sims, he’s been awesome this off-season. Getting Zach back and Daniel Brown and Ben Braunecker, and now Adam, and adding those different pieces, we need to figure out what each guy can do and then put them in those situations to do that."
Miller's health will be critical in divvying the tight end reps but it's clear each of the top three could play significant roles in 2017. Loggains already has an affinity for two tight-end sets, so expect that frequency to rise, particularly if Miller is able to stay on the field.
With all three healthy, expect Sims and Miller to rotate with the first team between the 20s, with Shaheen used primarily in the red zone, at least early in the season. That said, Shaheen's role will likely increases as the year progresses, especially if he's able to carry his practice performances over to the game field.
"I feel like he brings a lot to the table and creates mismatches and trouble for opposing safeties and linebackers as well," Sims said. "It was a great move and it’s exciting for him to come and be under all the tight ends and learning."
Being able to learn from veterans like Sims and Miller should help accelerate Shaheen's development, yet don't be surprised if Sims finishes the 2017 campaign as Chicago's most productive tight end.
"Whatever the team wants me to do, I'll do," said Sims. "The coaches are going to put me in the best position to help the team out and as long as we’re winning games, I’m going to play my heart out and do whatever is asked of me to do better as a team."