For better or worse, no Bears player had a more action-packed preseason debut at Soldier Field Thursday night than undrafted rookie TE Ian Bunting.
The 6-foot-7, 255-pound Cal product had a game-high 77 yards receiving, including the longest play from scrimmage — a 45-yard catch over the middle from Chase Daniel to set up Elliott Fry’s Bears debut steeped in history. Bunting also fumbled, was flagged for holding and was beaten for a sack. But he would’ve picked up the Bears’ initial first down — on an awesome second effort — if not for a teammate’s penalty negating a determined finish to his would-be first catch. That effort was also on display on each of his three official grabs (on four official targets).
“I think this team is all about that [extra effort],” Bunting told PFW after the game. “That’s one of the identities of this team — finishing every play. The coaches preach that, and that’s just something we do.”
Matt Nagy also prioritizes players who can create mismatches and be versatile, and though Bunting arrived in the spring known more for his blocking and still must prove he can help fortify the edges, he continues to exceed expectations as a receiver, where more highly-touted fellow college free agent Dax Raymond has actually taken a bit of a backseat to Bunting in a wide-open battle to help stabilize the offense’s most volatile position.
“This is just a really good opportunity for him to see how much can he digest in this playbook, and when the plays come to him and he gets a chance to make a play, does he make it?” Nagy said of Bunting. “He did a good job with that. He executed everything we asked him to do and it was productive for him.”
What makes Bunting unique to the Bears’ TE mix is his size and length, which fits the profile of a “Y” tight end as well as anyone on the roster except Adam Shaheen, whom the Bears are heavily counting on albeit largely with blind faith. And it’s been Bunting capitalizing the most in camp on the only sporadic availability of the oft-injured Shaheen and Trey Burton, who has apparently yet to recover fully from offseason sports hernia surgery.
Bunting told us Thursday night he had some brief pre-game jitters, but they quickly were replaced with growing confidence that he belonged out there in his first NFL action. Having a short memory, he said, and doing his best to remain centered after surrendering a sack, fumbling and drawing a flag in the second quarter, helped him persevere and show off his sneaky-impressive receiving prowess on huge gains of 45 and 23 over the middle of the field later on.
“I think I definitely showed some versatility, that I can run some routes and also block,” he said. “I obviously got a lot to work on, but I think I put a couple good things on tape.”
Indeed, and with the Bears — and other teams around the league — thin on tight ends who have done so, don’t underestimate the effect it might have on his chances of becoming Ryan Pace’s latest undrafted rookie to carve out a role.