There was a time in recent history when the Chicago Bears went into the regular season believing tight end Kellen Davis could serve as a legitimate pass-catching weapon. After Davis proved more adept at catching balls on his back than on his feet, GM Phil Emery was aggressive in finding a replacement.
In stepped Martellus Bennett, who gave Chicago’s offense a playmaking tight end. Yet Bennett’s role could change this year and there are question regarding depth at the position.
With OTAs and minicamps in the books, and training camp just a few weeks away, let’s break down the Bears tight ends heading into Bourbonnais.
The Bears signed Bennett to a four-year, $20.4 million salary in free agency last year and he proved well worth the money. He finished the year with 65 catches – second most in franchise history amongst tight ends, behind only Mike Ditka’s 75 receptions in 1964 – while Bennett’s 759 receiving yards and five touchdowns were sixth most in Bears annals.
What’s more, Bennett was a solid edge blocker in the run game, which rarely gave Marc Trestman reason to take him off the field. As a result, Bennett logged 964 snaps last year, the sixth most of any tight end in the league.
Interestingly, the five tight ends who played more snaps than Bennett in 2013 – Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Greg Olsen, Jordan Cameron and Antonia Gates – are all exclusive pass-catchers. Gonzalez hasn’t thrown a block in probably five years.
Yet Bennett is used heavily as a blocker. Of his 964 snaps last year, 437 were as a blocker, or 45 percent of his total snaps. That’s some serious wear and tear on a body. He dealt with numerous nagging injuries last season, so he’ll be one to keep an eye on throughout the campaign. If he goes down, the offense will take a big hit.
The good news for Bears fans is that Bennett has missed just four games total during his six-year career. He’s extremely durable and only 27 years old, so there’s no reason to believe he’ll succumb to injury this year.
During last year’s offseason activities, Bennett was a major part of the passing offense. That continued throughout training camp and into the regular season. If I had to guess, I’d say Bennett caught the most passes from Jay Cutler during 2013 training camp.
While Bennett is still a mainstay in nearly every offensive formation, he has not had the same impact as a pass catcher in practice this offseason. In fact, it appears Cutler is more inclined to throw to second-year pass catcher Marquess Wilson, the club’s third receiving option, over Bennett. This could be because Cutler knows what he has in Bennett and wants to build chemistry with Wilson but it bears watching during camp. If Cutler continues to limit Bennett’s touches in Bourbonnais, the Unicorn could be in line for a drop in production this year.
Dante Rosario is firmly entrenched as the club’s No. 2 tight end. No other player on the roster is ready to challenge him for that role.Yet how big of a role will it be?
Rosario logged 186 snaps last season and was used primarily in two tight end sets. He ran 106 patterns, with 68 run-block snaps and 12 pass-block snaps. He was targeted just four times, catching one pass for 16 yards, but he performed very well as a run blocker. According to Pro Football Focus, Rosario received a +7.0 run-block grade last year, which is outstanding.
Rosario has a small, yet important role in the offense, one that isn’t likely to change this year. During OTAs and minicamp, he split time with the first and second team. He showed some playmaking ability as a receiver last month and could be a serviceable replacement if Bennett misses time.
Beyond Bennett and Rosario, the rest of Chicago’s 2013 tight ends totaled 75 snaps, and neither player – Steve Maneri and Kyle Adams – finished the year on the 53-man roster.
In Marc Trestman’s offense, there really is very little use for a third tight end, a spot typically occupied by bigger edge blockers. In Chicago, the club uses offensive lineman Eben Britton as its third tackle, or “Monster” tight end. When you consider the blocking ability of both Bennett and Rosario, as well as the presence of Britton, it wouldn’t be surprising if the club enters the 2014 campaign with just two tight ends on the roster.
The only way that will change is if Zach Miller, Matthew Mulligan or Jeron Mastrud proves in training camp he’s worth a spot on the final 53. Neither Miller nor Mulligan showed much pass-catching ability during offseason programs, so it’s unlikely either will stick. Mastrud, a fifth-year journeyman, was signed following veteran minicamp and will need to be outstanding in Bourbonnais if he plans on contributing this year.
Very little will change this year in regard to the Bears tight ends. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Bennett and Rosario will likely log the same number of snaps and produce at levels comparable to their 2013 totals.
Bennett’s number might dip slightly but he’ll still be a stalwart in nearly every offensive set. If injuries hit, Rosario won’t be able to replicate Bennett’s production but he’s a reliable eight-year veteran who can keep the ship afloat.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.