For the Chicago Bears, it's been a wasteland at the tight end position since the team traded Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers in 2011. Olsen didn't fit the profile of a tight end in then-offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense and was sent packing for a third-round pick.
Since then, Chicago's offense has relied on Kellen Davis as the primary pass-catching weapon at tight end. The result the past two years combined: 37 catches for 443 yards. Davis was effective in the red zone, turning seven of his 37 receptions into touchdowns, but his inconsistency was a severe hindrance to the offense. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Davis dropped 29.63 percent of his catchable passes last season, which was second worst in the league amongst tight ends.
Davis had little presence in the middle of the field, which forced Jay Cutler to look Brandon Marshall's way on nearly every snap. It resulted in Marshall being targeted the second most times of any player in the league (192) and a 29th ranked passing offense.
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As a result, GM Phil Emery chose to go in a different direction this offseason, cutting Davis and signing Martellus Bennett, considered by many as the best all-round tight end on the market. So how much impact can Bennett have on Chicago's offense this season?
Bennett as a receiver
Bennett served as the backup to Jason Witten in Dallas his first four years, averaging just 21 catches per season with the Cowboys. He signed with the Giants as a free agent last offseason and was inserted as the primary pass-catching tight end for the first time in his career. The result was a 55-catch, 626-yard, five-touchdown campaign, which surpasses by a large margin Davis' totals the past two years combined.
According to PFF, Bennett's drop rate was 9.84 percent last year, which was 20 percentage points better than Davis. In addition, Bennett caught 41 percent of pass attempts 15 yards or longer, which was 16 percentage points better than Davis. And in Yards Per Route run, which takes into account the number of snaps a player went into a pattern, Bennett ranked 15th amongst tight ends in 2012, while Davis was dead last in the league.
So far this offseason, Bennett has showed much more fluidity as a router runner than Davis ever did, as well as far better hands. Bennett has also made a number of catches in traffic, another area in which Davis struggled.
Bennett as a blocker
Because Witten is such a prolific pass-catching tight end, Bennett was an afterthought in the passing game for the Cowboys. As such, he spent most of his first four years in the league blocking, which allowed him to develop into one of the premiere blocking tight ends in the NFL.
PFF uses a metric called Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE). Last year, Bennett allowed just two total pressure on Eli Manning, good for a PBE of 98.5, which was third best in the league amongst tight ends. And he's no slouch as a run blocker either, finishing 13 amongst tight ends in run blocking in 2012.
If Bennett can match his numbers from last season in Marc Trestman's offense, it would be a dramatic boost to an offense that hasn't had a seam threat in years. This will not only give Cutler a reliable target in the middle of the field but it will also take pressure off Marshall, who won't see as many double teams with Bennett pushing the safeties. That in itself should propel Chicago's passing attack into the top half of the league.
But there's no reason to think Bennett can't surpass his 2012 stats, as he was Cutler's primary target throughout most of OTAs and minicamp. In fact, no other pass catcher on the team hauled in more receptions than Bennett in the 12 practices I saw this offseason. Marshall is recovering from hip surgery and hardly practiced the past few months, so Bennett wont' see as many balls in training camp, but he's obviously going to be a huge part of the offense this year. Don't be surprised if Bennett is second on the club in receptions when it's all said and done.
That said, there have been some obvious chemistry issues between Cutler and his new tight end. Timing was a problem on a number of occasions. This isn't all that surprising though, as it usually takes any passing tandem time to mesh. If it continues throughout camp, then we can start to worry.
Bennett will be a boon to the aerial attack but his ability as a blocker could be his biggest contribution to the Bears this year. In pass protection, he'll be a huge help to Jermon Bushrod and J'Marcus Webb in support, and Bennett can also hold his own in one-on-one situations against edge rushers. For years, Cutler has taken a beating by opposing defenders turning the corner with little resistance. That will no longer be the case with Bennett.
Bennett's all-around skill set and ability to move will provide Trestman formational and play-calling flexibility. He's been on the edge, in the slot, at H-back and out wide this offseason, which will keep opposing defense guessing and could result in some juicy mismatches. Of all the veteran free agent Emery signed this year, Benentt will very likely be the one that impacts this team the most in 2013.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.