In today's NFL, tight ends are more than just the blockers and occasional pass catchers they've been throughout most of history. The crop of current athletes have the same size as their predecessors, yet these hulking human beings are fast and agile, with speed and catching ability comparable to most wide receivers.
Consider New England's Rob Gronkowski, who in 2011 broke the all-time record for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) by a tight end. Or New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, who has been targeted a whopping 284 times the past two seasons combined. Dallas' Jason Witten caught 110 passes last year, while San Francisco's Vernon Davis is almost always the fastest man on the field. In addition, tight ends like the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, Houston's Owen Daniels and Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph are all players that can burn defenses down the seams.
It's a new era for the tight end position. Either catch up or get left in the dust.
New Chicago Bears tight ends coach Andy Bischoff, who coached for five seasons in the Canadian Football League (CFL) under head coach Marc Trestman, knows the importance of having a dynamic playmaker at tight end.
"The way that the NFL tight end position is evolving, with the ability to stretch the field and to put stress on the defense at multiple levels, is really how the position is used in the CFL," Bischoff said. "The days of the tight end being a down blocker and a flat runner are gone. And if you have that guy, you'd better get somebody else eventually because those days are really gone. You need to have a guy who is dynamic and athletic."
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The problem for Bischoff and the Bears is that, on the team's current roster, that player does not exist. For the last two seasons Kellen Davis has been the leading pass-catching tight end in Chicago. That doesn't say much though, as Davis had just 37 receptions for 435 yards in 2011 and 2012 combined. In comparison, Witten surpassed those numbers in the second half of last season alone.
Davis just does not possess the athletic ability or hands to be a consistent pass catcher for the Bears. He has improved as a blocker, but under Bischoff, that won't mean as much.
"Yes you need a blocker but you can package your system with enough diversity and balance to be able to create a lot of stress [on the defense]," said Bischoff. "You're going to hear those words from our staff a lot. Our offense is really centered on bringing in the best players that we can and putting stress on the defense at every level of the field. That's what we want to do with our tight ends."
While the Bears' coaching staff wasn't allowed to talk about specific personnel during this week's meet and greet with Chicago media, Bischoff did mention one positive he saw on film.
"What we see very clearly on film is effort. You can work with effort," he said. "Then you have to spend more time in the evaluation process and truly see if those skills match what our skill set needs to be. It's early for that. The exciting part is you see effort."
Yet effort alone isn't going to turn Davis into a threat down the middle of the field. In order to fulfill the criteria Bischoff has laid out for his tight ends, the Bears' front office will have to secure upgrades this offseason, whether through the draft or free agency. Because, according to Bischoff, the tight end in Chicago's offense going forward is going to be critical component of the passing attack.
"We need a tight end that can threaten the defense," he said. "We need a tight end that can create stress in the middle of the field, or wherever we place him, because we're going to line him up next to the tackles, and we're going to line him up outside the numbers and we're going to line him up in the backfield and we're going to expect the defense to figure it out. We need a receiver that can catch the ball and a receiver that can block enough to be lined up in the backfield if we put him there. Absolutely we need a tight end that can catch the ball."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.