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Third year has been a charm for Braunecker

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It's no coincidence that third-year tight end Ben Braunecker is making more plays and feeling more comfortable than he did in his first two seasons with the Bears.

"I've always been the guy to not step into an environment and immediately thrive," said Braunecker, who joined the Bears in 2016 as an undrafted free agent from Harvard. "I like to I guess subconsciously feel it out and find a way to succeed in it; figure out the problems and then solve them.

"I think this being Year 3, I'm really starting to find my stride and to be comfortable playing on the field no matter the situation, and to know what I'm capable of and just be confident in my play."

It makes sense that Braunecker applies such a cerebral and reflective approach to his NFL career. After all, he spent his final two summers in college working in a lab at the Harvard Medical School and hopes to one day become a research-based infectious disease doctor.

On the football field, Braunecker blossomed as a junior both at Forest Park High School in Ferdinand, Ind., and again at Harvard, and he hopes to continue the same pattern in his third year with the Bears.

"I don't really have an explanation," Braunecker said. "For some reason, there's something about the No. 3 and feeling comfortable."

After shuffling between the practice squad and 53-man roster in his first two seasons with the Bears—playing in 21 of a possible 32 games—Braunecker is making a strong push to become a regular contributor on offense.

With fellow tight ends Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen sidelined with injuries, Braunecker has made the most of expanded playing time. He stood out last week in Denver, making several impressive catches in two joint practices with the Broncos. He then followed with a late 12-yard touchdown catch in Saturday night's preseason game, lifting the Bears to a 24-23 comeback win.

"It's basically the life of a backup in the NFL; just keep yourself ready," Braunecker said. "You know you can play the game, [so] just wait for your opportunity and make the most of it when it happens."

It sounds easy, but it hasn't been that simple for Braunecker, who has made major strides since the start of training camp.

"I've seen a kid that's grown," said coach Matt Nagy. "He came out early on in training camp and he had a couple rough days. We got on him. I, in particular, got on him. To see the kid be resilient and fight back and fight through that mentality and now to come out here in these games, you see that his confidence is growing. You see it out in practice and on the field."

With Sims and Shaheen still sidelined, Braunecker figures to continue to see expanded playing in Saturday afternoon's preseason game against the Chiefs at Soldier Field.

"It means more reps for me," Braunecker said, "and more of an opportunity to put myself out there to make plays, to hopefully make a club if not this one."

When he gets more opportunities to play because of injuries at his position, Braunecker fights the urge to try to do too much.

"It's just another day at the office really," he said. "If you try to put too much pressure on yourself, then your focus switches from 'I'm going to make this play' to 'I need to make this play," which is a lot more difficult."

Braunecker loves how tight ends are featured in the Bears' new offense.

"You saw what Nagy did with [Travis] Kelce in Kansas City," Braunecker said. "I think it really opens things up in the middle for big, athletic tight ends to run down the seam. And there are a lot of quarterback reads where the tight end is No. 1 in the progression, so it's an extremely tight-end friendly offense. It's awesome."

Although he figures to continue to get more reps on offense, Braunecker will keep working on what has been his meal ticket in pro football.

"I've actually really grown fond of special teams in the NFL," he said. "Just philosophically, offense is controlling the chaos of the game to try to get productivity down the field. Special teams is like high school football to me; just run around. Sure, you have rules and a job on every single play, but to me it's more freeing and relaxing and more like football is fun again.

"It's less about being in the right spot at the right time and more about playing football for fun; going down there and making a play."

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