At the end of the 2010 season, the Bears appeared set at tight end. Greg Olsen had a connection with Jay Cutler. During their two years together in Chicago, Olsen caught more of Cutler's touchdown passes than anyone else. Under Mike Martz's offense, Olsen's receptions had dropped from 60 to 41, but he seemed content to stay in Chicago and prove his worth to Martz and the Bears.
The Bears didn't have the same plans. Soon after the lockout ended, the Bears put Olsen through a bizarre drama. In the course of one day, his agent announced that he was seeking a trade, then asked teams to disregard this request. Hours later, Olsen was traded to the Carolina Panthers.
In a matter of one day, Olsen went from being a popular and integral part of the offense to sitting on the trading block. The tight end changes didn't end there, as the Bears also cut Brandon Manumaleuna, just one year after signing him to a five-year contract. Over the 2010 season, Manumaleuna never met expectations in blocking or receiving.
After signing former Pittsburgh Steelers TE Matt Spaeth and engaging in a preseason-only dalliance with longtime Bear Desmond Clark, Kellen Davis was the only tight end with any Bears experience that remained. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo was confident he had put together the right mix at the position.
TE Kellen Davis
"We're really not looking for Kellen Winslow; we're looking for Mike Ditka," Angelo said. "The tight ends that we have now really fit more of the profile we want in the offense. It's no more than that."
The whole saga was baffling to watch but Bears' brass appears content with the team's tight-end mix. Though trading Olsen was not a popular move among Bears fans, it gave Davis a golden opportunity to show that he can be the Bears solution at tight end. A starting slot, however, was not definite. With Spaeth around, Davis had to prove that he could handle the full-time job.
"We said we'd give him the opportunity," Bears tight ends coach Mike DeBord said to the Chicago Sun-Times, "and then he's got to own that spot."
He won it with a camp that demonstrated his full recovery from a back injury. Davis caught his coaches' eye with the solid blocking and the athleticism for which he had become known. Now that he has won the starter's spot, he wants to contribute to the Bears offense immediately.
"Oh yeah, I'm ready for it," Davis said to the Rockford Register-Star. "I want to be a big part of this offense, and I will do what I have to do to get it and keep it."
Physically, Davis is the perfect tight end. Standing at 6-7, 267 pounds, he has the size to serve the Bears offense as both a blocker and receiver. Only rookie lineman Gabe Carimi and all-pro lineman Julius Peppers match Davis in height.
He is expected to use that size this season as another piece of the wall to keep Jay Cutler safe and open routes for the running game. With the Bears well-known problems at offensive line, Davis will have to help out as a blocker. He has no problem with using his skills to block.
"We want to be more successful running the ball, but I also think we're going to get some more passes thrown to us," Davis said. "We're going to get more opportunities to catch the ball and I intend on making the most of it each time."
With a sub-4.6 40-yard dash, he has deceptive speed and an ability to find the ball in traffic and create yardage after a catch. In 2009, he had nine receptions. Three were touchdowns, and five went for first downs. Like Olsen, Davis' receptions declined under Mike Martz's offense but Davis' skills as a receiver were impressive in his fourth training camp. He is looking forward to being one more target for Cutler, especially in the red zone. He wants to be able to use his speed for long balls.
"He caught some long balls for us last year in some special situations," DeBord said to the Chicago Tribune. "He's got really good speed; I mean, really good speed. When you get him locked up man-on-man, we feel like we can go to him."
TE Kellen Davis
After a standout career at Michigan State, Davis was drafted by the Bears in the fifth round in 2008, just a year after the team had drafted Olsen in the first round. Though competing for reps, the two grew into their position under the mentorship of veteran Desmond Clark. Davis was always comfortable as a receiver but had much to learn on the fundamentals of blocking and how to become a more-complete tight end.
Clark noticed right away that in his fourth year, Davis was more confident.
"He's not questioning himself or thinking, ‘Maybe I should have done this, maybe I should have done that?' He's just going full speed ahead," Clark told the Sun-Times. "Whatever they told him before they started camp helped him out because he's playing like he belongs at that No. 1 position."
That confidence is necessary for Davis as the Bears offense will face tough tests from the very first game. In the first month of the season, the team will play two of the league's top defenses in Atlanta and Green Bay. When Ndamukong Suh and the Lions come after Cutler, Davis will have to step in and hold off the rookie of the year who had 10 sacks in 2010.
To get him ready for this tough slate, the Bears used a fellow gigantic, athletic player: Peppers. During training camp, the Bears would sometimes send Davis and the other tight ends to practice with the offensive line, running one-on-one drills with the defensive linemen. Davis held his own against the six-time Pro-Bowler.
"I can get Julius," Davis told CSN Chicago. "Of course, he's going to get me sometimes, but I can get him. Do it every day."
Getting Julius is a perfect warm-up for when he will be asked to block B.J Raji or Suh. Having Davis support the offensive line will not only help keep Cutler upright but will also help with the running game. By taking on defensive ends, Davis can open up running lanes for Matt Forte.
"You get a tight end that's 270 pounds, with that big-old wing span, you don't have to double-team the edge to get outside," Martz said. "It allows you a freedom in the running game that you would normally not have. Instead of running away from [the tight ends], you can run at him and expect him to win without getting help from the [offensive] tackle."
After an outstanding preseason, Martz and the rest of the Bears staff expect Davis to make a big impression this year.
"Kellen has stepped to the forefront and established himself not just as a blocker, but also a pretty dynamic receiver in practice. There are some things coming out of this that you get pretty excited about," Martz said.
TE Matt Spaeth
While most Bears fans will recognize Davis, Matt Spaeth is a new name and face to learn. Before the NFL, Spaeth won the John Mackey Award for college football's best tight end while at Minnesota. He spent four years with Pittsburgh, starting 39 games there.
Spaeth made just 36 catches for the Steelers, racking up 275 yards during his time there. He made just one catch in 2010. But catching whatever Cutler throws is not why the Bears signed him. If they wanted a tight end that was known as a receiver, they would have held on to Olsen. Instead, Spaeth is respected for his blocking prowess. As a part of the Steelers offense last year, Pittsburgh racked up 120 rushing yards per game.
DeBord was happy with Spaeth's pre-season contributions.
"Then we have Matt Spaeth who we picked up. Matt is a very physical player, smart, quick … he has good speed. So he gives us a lot in size and quickness," Debord told the Chicago Tribune.
Bears coaches appreciate the versatility both Spaeth and Davis provide. Yet one more tight end turned heads in camp: undrafted free agent Kyle Adams. The Purdue product was one of the 27 undrafted rookies the Bears signed in a flurry at the beginning of the offseason. He then became one of the five undrafted free agents to make the 53-man roster. Chicago was pleased with his ability to serve as a halfback, tight end and on special teams. At "just" 6-4, he does not have the size of Davis, and as a rookie, he's missing the experience of Spaeth, but he does have the opportunity to learn and grow in Martz's offense.
One thing this corps of tight ends has in common, besides their Big 10 origins, is youth. At 27 years old, Spaeth is the senior-most player. The one ingredient they are missing is a seasoned mentor like Clark, who was released at the before the season. Davis said that Clark was always a huge help and looks to utilize the knowledge that Clark gave him.
As the 2011 season begins, the team's tight end situation is not what many fans expected, but shattering expectations is exactly what the Bears want to do.
A born-and-bred Chicagoan, Maggie Hendricks writes for Yahoo! Sports on their mixed martial arts blog, Cagewriter at cagewriter.com and their Olympic Sports blog, Fourth Place Medal at fourthplacemedal.com, and for NBC Chicago on their Chicago Bears blog, Grizzly Detail.