The Chicago Bears have an interesting decision to make this week.
Getting production out of the tight end position has been a struggle this season, but against the 49ers last week – in Justin Fields’ best game of the season – he targeted his tight ends nine times and completed six of those assists for 62 yards and a touchdown.
A week earlier against the Bucs, Fields targeted his tight ends 10 times and completed eight passes for 63 yards.
It’s not like those numbers were mind-blowing, but they’re an improvement from the rest of the season.
And it should be noted that Jimmy Graham did not play in any of these matches.
Let’s play the blind CV game:
Tight end A: 6 receptions, 6 targets, 58 yards, 1 touchdown, 9.67 yards/target, 64 snaps
Tight end B: 1 reception, 3 targets, 11 yards, 0 touchdowns, 3.67 yards/target, 99 snaps
If you had to split playing time between these two players in Monday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would you put on the court?
Tight end A is Jesse James. Tight end B is Jimmy Graham. And it should be noted that these James numbers are only for the last two games when James was replacing Graham. His role before that – which includes a total of 108 snaps over the season – was mostly an extra tight end.
But it still raises an important question: is James better suited for Graham’s job than Graham is? And yes, that’s where the conversation comes back to the chemistry Fields developed with the second and third stringers in training camp.
“With the amount of reps we had in camp — right when (James) got here — he was pretty much running with my group every rep,” Fields said. “I think we built a connection there, just that foundation.”
But Fields didn’t really get a chance to continue that connection until Week 7 in Tampa. In the past two games, he’s completed 6 of 6 passes to James, including an impressive 8-yard touchdown rush against the 49ers. Fields’ only other touchdown on a tight end this season went to Jesper Horsted in Las Vegas.
Graham’s 2021 season has been a weird one. He was a possible victim of the cap this offseason, but instead of saving $7 million on the salary cap by releasing him, the Bears restructured his contract so he carried a dead cap of $4.6 million. dollars in 2022. That seemed potentially justifiable considering the 35-year-old caught nine touchdowns last season, but eight weeks into 2021 he only has one catch and it came back in Week 1.
So the Bears need to at least examine why James has had six catches and a touchdown in the past two weeks with Graham on the reserve/COVID-19 roster.
Asked about Fields’ budding chemistry with James on Thursday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy replied:
“I think that’s a very good point. You see that. You feel it. That pitch he rolled to his left, first play of the third quarter — Jesse is a big target. He has long arms. And they have this link. They played together during the pre-season. They had a few comebacks, on the right, early (in the preseason), on the sideline. And so I think it’s natural to have that.
But Nagy was quick to bring the conversation back to Graham, who is back in practice this week.
“We get a hell of a tight end which also goes to Jimmy Graham. He’s one of the best to do it in this position, so we feel really good to have these three guys,” Nagy said. “When you have a rapport with a guy, it’s important to keep it, and these guys have that and we’ll see where it goes.”
It will be interesting to see how the tight reps are distributed against the Steelers. Cole Kmet will continue to get the majority of reps and targets as the No. 1 tight end, but if Fields has a trustworthy target in James, it seems silly to cut his snaps. He played 54% of snaps (38) against the 49ers. Graham’s season-high in a game is 25 snaps (39% against the Raiders).
“Through throwing so many routes to (James) I can kind of tell where his body is going to be,” Fields said. “He has a wide range where he is long. He can go up and pick it up. Of course, you saw on Sunday that he could go low and catch the ball too. This connection was based in the camp.
The Bears can’t change the lack of reps Fields received with starters in training camp, but they can change the future reps he gets with players he’s comfortable with. Jesse James is the perfect example.