28 Oct Bears’ Trey Burton among tight ends with quarterback backgrounds thriving in NFL
Tim Tebow never changed positions to play tight end but it’s a good thing former Florida Gators Trey Burton and Jordan Reed did.
Burton and Reed were in the quarterback meeting room together at Florida after then-coach Urban Meyer recruited them to follow in the footsteps of Tebow, who some thought would be an interesting tight end/H-back in the NFL. Burton and Reed have become successful tight ends in the NFL, part of a small group of passers turned pass catchers.
The power forward in basketball was the athlete NFL teams were looking to convert to tight end, a transition some of the game’s best at the position like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham made. The quarterback-to-tight end transition is another trend that has become more popular, a position change Burton, Reed, Travis Kelce and Zach Miller, among others, have made.
“It’s a very, very big advantage for them because they can feel the holes in the coverage,” said Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator at Florida in 2011 when Burton was moved for good to tight end.
Weis boiled down the essence of the knowledge that helps former quarterbacks at the position: “If I were going to throw the ball to me, this is where I would want me to be. So you throw good skills in with that extra football intelligence that comes in the passing game, it is definitely an advantage.”
Burton, one of Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s marquee free-agent signings, was identified as a perfect fit for coach Matt Nagy’s scheme. He broke out for the first time last week with a career-high nine receptions on 11 targets for 126 yards in the 38-31 loss to the Patriots. He’s second among NFL tight ends with four touchdowns trailing only the Colts’ Eric Ebron (six). Burton is averaging 13.5 yards per catch, settling into the expanded role of the U-tight end the Bears envisioned for him after he spent four seasons as the third tight end and a core special teams performer for the Eagles.
The playbook is quite similar to what Burton learned with the Eagles and it’s easy to see the grasp he has on the system when watching him run routes. In his first catch against the Patriots, he sat down in a zone at depth of 13 yards between linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Devin McCourty for an easy catch that turned into a 22-yard gain. On fourth-and-4 in the second quarter, he found space in front of safety Patrick Chung for a clear throw and 17-yard gain.
“He’s very bright,” Bears tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride said. “He understands the concepts and how we’re trying to attack different coverages to the point where I can say, ‘What do you think about this? What do you like to beat this coverage and what techniques do you like?’ He then can tell me how he plans to win on the route. It’s impressive in that regard.”
The physical transition is the biggest hurdle for these converted quarterbacks to make. Burton is not going to have a lot of success as an in-line blocker and the same goes for Reed and Kelce. Miller wasn’t the best run blocker when he played but he improved and always had willingness to stick his nose in there. Blake Bell of the Jaguars and A.J. Derby of the Dolphins are also college QBs turned tight ends.
“It’s kind of a weird thing to describe,” said Miller, who was a quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha. “As a tight end, you have a sense of timing of where the QB is at in their drop and of where they’re at in the pocket. You can kind of feel when things need to be sped up or maybe when routes need to be cut down a little bit. You just have this different aspect of playing.”
Tebowmania was at its peak when Burton, from Venice, (Fla.) High School, committed to Florida. He wasn’t through his freshman season when Meyer first mentioned the possibility of a position change.
“He basically said, ‘You’re more athletic right now than a lot of the guys playing at the skill positions. We can’t afford for you to sit on the bench and be the backup quarterback.’ From my standpoint, I wanted to play. I knew I wasn’t going to start at quarterback. The guy in front of me (John Brantley) had been there for a while and he was a lot better quarterback than I was so I saw it as an opportunity to get on the field. I ran with it.”
Safety, running back and tight end were positions the Gators considered with Burton, who broke Tebow’s school record when he scored six touchdowns in a victory over Kentucky as a freshman. Burton was primarily a wildcat quarterback on that big day.
Will Muschamp came in as head coach the next year and Burton was playing safety for about a week before Weis called him into his office and delivered a message similar to what Meyer said.
“ ‘We need to find something to do with you’,” Weis said he told Burton. “He ran really well. And he had great hands. He had great offensive skills. You had to try to find a way to utilize them. He wasn’t the most physical person so lining up as a stationary on the line tight end but that second tight end was a perfect spot for him. You could get mismatches with him because he could run routes like a wide receiver and he can catch like a wide receiver.”
Burton marvels at his good fortune knowing that if Meyer had remained at Florida he likely would have continued as a quarterback. His background as a quarterback helped him adapt quickly as the Gators went through three offensive coordinators in his four seasons.
“We were learning a whole new playbook almost every single year so it helped a lot in the sense of learning concepts,” Burton said. “Going back to high school as the quarterback, I had to know what everyone had just in case someone forgot. From then on, I have always looked at an offense from the whole, not just what the Y has or the U has or the X. It makes it easier for me.”
Burton proved he still could throw the ball in Super Bowl LII with the Philly Special. Sooner or later you have to figure Nagy has something in his playbook to utilize Burton’s background as a quarterback.