Under Tice, tight ends should flourish

Bears coordinator Mike Tice is in the process of installing a brand new offense this offseason, and it's clear the first-time OC will make the team's tight ends an integral part of his system.

Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice played 14 seasons as a tight end in the NFL from 1981-1995. Following his retirement, he immediately became the tight ends coach for the Minnesota Vikings in 1996. He spent time as offensive line coach from 1997-2001 before being named head coach in 2002, a post he held for four seasons.

Tice did not call plays regularly as head coach but was integral in the development and installation of Minnesota's offensive game plans. On a couple of occasions, during transitional periods with his coaching staff, Tice did handle the play-calling duties for brief stints.

For three years, Tice used the passing combination of Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper to stretch defenses deep. In 2003, the duo broke numerous passing records. It was a downfield attack that few opposing defenses could stop.

Yet to augment Moss in the passing game, Tice utilized his tight ends. He used a standard edge tight end as well as an F-back that typically lined up in the wing spot, serving a dual role as a tight end and fullback.

Jim Kleinsasser served as the F-back in 2002 and 2003 and finished third on the team in receptions both seasons. In 2004 and 2005, Jermaine Wiggins, the edge tight end, led the club in catches – 71 in 2004 and 69 in 2005.

TE Kellen Davis
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

At offensive coordinator, the Bears have a coach that not only played tight end in the NFL but also has a strong history as a coach of throwing to his tight ends. While former OC Mike Martz neglected the position, Tice appears ready to make it the focal point of his offense, even with a talented group of wideouts at his disposal.

Over the past five weeks, during OTAs and minicamps, Tice has installed an offense that uses at least one tight end on each and every play. Where Martz utilized four- and five-receiver sets regularly, Tice has yet deploy a formation with more than three receivers.

Most sets utilize two tight ends lined up all over the field. Tice is not afraid to set a pair on the edges, or one on the edge and one at the wing, or out wide, or in the slot, or in a bunch formation – anywhere you can think of putting a tight end.

Yet it's not just the number of tight ends on the field that's notable. How they are being used says much more about Tice's intentions this year.

Where Martz thought his tight ends should block, Tice feels they should catch balls down the field. On nearly every pass play, at least one tight end has been streaking up the seam, taking advantage of mismatches against linebackers. And Jay Cutler has shown a willingness to utilize his big-bodied receivers over the middle of the field.

Starting tight end Kellen Davis sat out most of OTAs resting his oft-injured back. In his place, Matt Spaeth (6-2, 260) stepped up in a big way. He showed great route running and hands, making a handful of grabs deep down the field.

During minicamp, it was Spaeth who sat out with an injury, allowing Kyle Adams – an undrafted free agent last year who spent most of the campaign on IR – a chance to show his stuff. Like Spaeth, Adams (6-4, 255) did a very good job working vertical routes and consistently beating linebackers and safeties.

Davis returned for minicamp but was fairly nonexistent until the final practice session, when he lit up the field. He was a force on deep, intermediate and underneath stuff. During red zone drills, Cutler targeted him repeatedly, with Davis using his size (6-7, 270) to haul in touchdown after touchdown.

And let's not forget the rookie Evan Rodriguez (6-2, 244), who may not be as big as the team's other tight ends yet has arguable the best hands of the group. Rodriguez has made a number of tough catches in traffic and looks like he can be a weapon going forward. As of right now though, he's the team's fourth tight end. Like all the other draft picks, Rodriguez is going to have to earn his playing time.

Yet playing time may come sooner than later. With Adams and Rodriguez working well at F-back, and Davis and Speath excelling on the edge, Tice is strongly considering keeping four tight ends on the 2012 roster, which could mean the end of the line for fullback Tyler Clutts – a decent lead blocker but a liability as a pass catcher. If Rodriguez and Adams can tag team the lead blocking duties – something in which both have proved capable – Clutts will be expendable.

There is no doubt this will be a tight-end-heavy offense this year and it's likely each tight end will see his fair share of looks. If this group can be successful between the seams, things will open up outside, allowing Brandon Marshall to carve up opposing secondaries.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.

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