In the passing offense of former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the tight end position was an afterthought. Tight ends were asked primarily to be blockers. Pass catching was left to the wide receivers.
Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis, the club's two primary tight ends, combined to play 1,120 snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Yet the two were targeted a combined 41 times – 4 percent of their total snaps. Compare those numbers to the targets of the game's top tight ends: Jimmy Graham, NO (146); Rob Gronkowski, NE (121); Jason Witten, DAL (114); Tony Gonzalez, ATL (113); Aaron Hernandez, NE (108); Vernon Davis, SF (92); Jermichael Finley, GB (91); Antonio Gates, SD (87).
Davis and Spaeth both struggled as pass blockers all season. Davis was downright awful at times, especially early in the campaign. Yet he was amazingly productive as a pass catcher, considering how little he was used. Davis caught just 18 balls, yet turned five of those into touchdowns. He has great size (6-7, 267), which makes him a heavy load to bring down after the catch. According to PFF, he forced five missed tackles last year, the most of any receiver or tight end on the team.
If you were to extrapolate Davis' per-catch production to a season in which he received 100 targets, he would have caught roughly 55 passes for 650 yards and 16 TDs. Lovie Smith praised Davis in his postseason press conference, meaning he'll likely lobby for the team to re-sign the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.
Yet even if the club does bring Davis back, they should strongly consider bringing in a player that has established himself as a serious pass-catching threat. Here are six veteran free agents the Bears should consider signing this offseason.
TE Jermichael Finley
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
Jermichael Finley, GB (6-5, 247) Age: 25
Finley is one of the most-athletic tight ends in the business. He's a smooth receiver who moves his big frame like a receiver. He has great leaping ability and is a flat-out mismatch for any linebacker, and most safeties. Negatives are his poor run blocking ability, too many dropped passes and injuries. Contract negotiations with Green Bay have been unfruitful so far and it's unclear whether the Packers will franchise him if the two sides can't work out a deal. If Finley hits the open market, the Bears should pounce on a player that would give them a powerful threat down the middle of the field.
Fred Davis, WAS (6-4, 258) Age: 26
Davis is a steadily improving player that has produced despite poor quarterback play in Washington. He set career single-season marks last year with 59 catches and 796 yards and is just now entering his prime. It's possible the Redskins will tag Davis, he's that valuable to their offense. If not, the Bears should strongly consider snatching him up.
John Carlson, SEA (6-5, 251) Age: 27
Carlson missed all of last season with a torn labrum. Yet he's shown during his brief career in the NFL that he can be a highly productive tight end. In 2008 and 2009, he combined for 106 catches, 1,201 yards and 12 TDs. If healthy, he's a weapon down the seam. The Seahawks don't appear too worried about Carlson leaving, so he should be available when the free agent period begins on March 13.
Scott Chandler, BUF (6-7, 263) Age: 26
Chandler finally got a chance at full-time action last season. He started nine games, catching 38 balls for 389 yards and six touchdowns. He's still relatively young and appears to finally be coming into his own. In the red zone, he's tough to cover. With a strong-armed QB like Jay Cutler throwing to him, he could easily produce career-best numbers in Chicago.
Joel Dreessen, HOU (6-4, 245) Age: 29
Dreessen has played in the shadow of Owen Daniels the past five seasons. As such, he's never received the lion's share of targets. Yet Dreessen has always made the most of his touches. He has 64 catches and 10 TDs the past two years combined, playing second fiddle for the Texans. On top of that, he's an outstanding blocker. He's arguably the best all-around tight end on the open market and will come at a discount. If the Bears can't land Finley or Davis, they could do much worse than Dreessen.
Martellus Bennett, DAL (6-6, 270) Age: 24
Bennett isn't much of a pass catcher. He's never caught more than 33 balls or 283 yards in a single season during his four years in the NFL, and hasn't caught a TD pass since 2008. Yet he's one of the best young blocking tight ends in the business. As both a run blocker and in pass protection, Bennett is outstanding. If the Bears are looking to make an upgrade over Spaeth, Bennett would be the guy.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.