Believe it or not, the Chicago Bears have some talented tight ends on the roster. Based on the tape from last season, you would have never known that fact, as former offensive coordinator Mike Martz ignores his tight ends like no other OC in the league.
New OC Mike Tice is a former NFL tight end. His first gig as a professional coach was the tight ends coach for the Minnesota Vikings. When he ran the Vikings in the early 2000s, he consistently used his tight ends as pass catchers.
So it was no surprise this offseason, during OTAs and minicamps, to see Chicago's offense lining up in multiple tight end sets, using them as receivers all over the field. Unlike Martz, Tice sees his tight ends as integral pieces in the passing attack and will use them as such going forward.
Typically, Tice likes to use a traditional edge tight end and an F-back, normally lined up in the wing position. In Minnesota, Jim Kleinsasser excelled for 13 seasons as an F-back, a hybrid tight end/fullback position. Under Tice in 2004, Jermaine Wiggins, the edge tight end, led the team in receptions.
TE Kellen Davis
This offseason, Tice has lined up his tight ends in the backfield, the wing, the slot and out wide. He's used them in bunch formations and stacked them on the edge, as well as isolating them outside. Any way you can imagine using a tight end, Tice has already done it.
Yet it's not just where they are being positioned that has observers excited about their potential this year, it's also how they are being used. Under Tice, Chicago's tight ends are being used on vertical routes, eating up space and occupying defenders in the middle of the field. When open, Cutler has found them down the field, and each has looked great catching the ball. And when they are covered, that usually means a receiver is open out wide.
For these reasons, it's reasonable to expect the club's tight ends to take a significant step forward this season. Let's break down the current crop of tight ends in preparation for Bears training camp.
Davis has been severely under-utilized during his time in Chicago. In four seasons, he has caught just 28 passes for 300 yards. Yet, despite his limited touches, he has scored nine touchdowns during that span. His 3.1 catch-per-TD ratio ranks seventh best in franchise history.
When given the opportunity, Davis has performed very well. He has ideal size (6-7, 270) to go along with good speed and hands. That combination could make him a force in Tice's offense.
Matched up on smaller linebackers and safeties, Davis is nearly un-coverable. And after the catch, he's an absolute load to bring down. As evidenced by his touchdown ratio, when you get the ball in Davis' hands, good things happen.
The organization is well aware of this. Immediately after the 2011 season ended, coach Lovie Smith touted Davis and his potential as a receiver.
"Kellen Davis can do anything the good tight ends in this league can do," Smith said. "As a catcher if we focus in on him, we can make him more of a guy that people are talking about just based on throwing him the ball more. So I think we have an excellent tight end with good speed, size. I think we had a combination of as good a tight end, the makings of, as anyone around in Kellen."
To that end, the club re-signed Davis this offseason to a two-year contract. If Tice makes him a focal part of the offense, expect Davis to double, or even triple, his numbers from last season (18 catches, 206 yards, 5 TDs).
Matt Spaeth was signed as a free agent last offseason. He's big and strong (6-7, 260), and is a very good blocker. He'll likely serve more as a blocker than a receiver this season. Yet during OTAs, which Davis sat out, Spaeth looked very good as a pass catcher with the first team. If Davis misses time with injury, Spaeth appears capable of being productive in a starting role.
TE Evan Rodriguez
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
At F-back, there will be a camp competition between Kyle Adams, an undrafted free agent from last season, and this year's third round draft pick Evan Rodriguez. Adams performed very well last preseason, yet missed most of the regular season with a knee injury. Most impressive was his blocking ability, where he's not afraid to get dirty. As a lead blocker, Adams has a lot of value.
Yet so does Rodriguez, who was a pure F-back in college. On film, Rodriguez is smart leading into the hole and easily finds defenders. He can really pack a punch when he connects with an opposing player. He also has outstanding hands – easily the best of all the tight ends. In one-on-one drills, Rodriguez has been unstoppable. In a dual role, he can be a big weapon in Tice's offense.
Brandon Venson was signed after a strong rookie minicamp this offseason. He has sticky hands and catches nearly everything thrown his way. Unfortunately, he lacks speed and lumbers through his routes. If he were a bit faster, he'd have a shot at a roster spot, but his lack of quickness will likely keep him out of the NFL.
The Bears have a pair of players fighting for the team's fullback job – Tyler Clutts and Draylen Ross – yet neither has been impressive. It's very possible that Tice will forego the fullback spot and instead keep four tight ends, using the two F-backs as lead blockers.
Davis, Spaeth, Rodriguez and Adams have all looked very good. Each has value in this new offense, which is why I believe all four will be a part of the final 53-man roster.
Edge starter: Kellen Davis
Edge backup: Matt Spaeth
F-back starter: Evan Rodriguez
F-back backup: Kyle Adams
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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.