In the recent history of the NFL, an influx of athletic tight ends have permeated the league. Guys like Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis have proven that tight ends can be just as deadly in the passing game as their wide receiver teammates.
Yet the deadliest of all tight ends is New England's Rob Gronkowski. Last season, he set NFL single-season records for tight ends for most receiving touchdowns (17), most total touchdowns (18) and most receiving yards (1,327).
His partner in crime, tight end Aaron Hernandez, also proved to be a deadly weapon, catching 79 passes for 910 yards and 7 TDs. The duo proved to be the most-effective pair of tight ends on the same team in league history. The Patriots, a team with no top-tier wide receivers and a mediocre defense, rode Gronkowski and Hernandez, as well as Tom Brady, all the way to the Super Bowl in 2011.
The NFL is a copycat league. As such, many teams are looking to create their own version of Gronkowski/Hernandez. The Chicago Bears appear to be one of those clubs.
The team re-signed Kellen Davis this offseason and drafted Evan Rodriguez out of Temple in the fourth round. Neither player has proven squat in the NFL but there are many that believe they will prove to be a quality pass-catching duo for the Bears as early as this season.
In his four-year career, Davis has caught just 28 passes for 300 yards. Yet that lack of production can certainly be attributed to factors other than Davis' ability on the field.
TE Evan Rodriguez
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
During his first three years in the league, he sat behind Greg Olsen, one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the game. After Olsen was traded and Davis was named the starter, he was forced to toil his way through former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system, which does not use tight ends as receivers. Davis was forced to block for most of the campaign and caught only 18 passes.
Yet, despite his lack of numbers, Davis has always produced when given the opportunity. He's caught just 28 passes in his career, yet nine have gone for touchdowns. In four seasons, he has scored on nearly every third pass he's caught.
No other tight end in the league can boast that type of per-catch production. Davis has just two post-season catches, but guess what, one of those went for a score. His value as a red-zone target cannot be understated.
According to Pro Football Focus, Davis was targeted a measly 31 times last season – less than two per game. In comparison, Gronkowski was targeted 121 times in 2011. Extrapolate Davis' numbers out to 121 targets and here is roughly what he would have accomplished last year: 72 catches for 836 yards, to go along with 20 TDs and 20 broken tackles, both of which would have led the league.
While Davis has the size (6-7, 270) to be a threat down the seam and near the end zone, newcomer Rodriguez has the versatility to make an outstanding complement. At Temple he played H-back, which is a hybrid fullback/tight end position. He lined up in the backfield, at wing, in the slot and out wide. He was used mainly as a blocker but he showed well as a pass catcher when called upon.
At last weekend's rookie minicamp, Rodriguez demonstrated his outstanding set of hands. Yet at just 6-1, he doesn't necessarily have the size to be a threat down the seam. Rodriguez appears to be a better underneath option than a downfield threat.
Yet with Davis commanding attention in the middle of the field, Rodriguez should be able to take advantage of the openings that will create. When you throw in the two big Bears wideouts – Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery – as well as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester in the slot, there should be plenty of room for Rodriguez to make an impact. He'll likely be covered by a linebacker every time he releases from the line of scrimmage – matchups he should be able to exploit regularly.
There's no reason, given the overall set of weapons in Chicago's offense, that Davis and Rodriguez can't be a highly productive tight-end pairing.
Yet it's going a bit overboard to assume these two will match the production of Gronkowski and Hernandez. Neither Rodriguez nor Davis has proven anything in this league. While both are full of potential, they'll have to first show they're capable of being All Pros before we start anointing them as such.
For this season, the duo needs to learn how to play with each other within the confines of Mike Tice's offense. Once they have fully defined their roles, and proven they have the ability to be studs in the passing game, then 2013 could be the year in which they develop into a top-tier pass-catching tight-end combo.
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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.