In addition to his prowess as a pass catcher – his 90 catches last season led the league among tight ends, while his 916 receiving yards were second only to New England’s Rob Gronkowski – Bennett is also a quality blocker on the edge.
After earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl last year, Bennett is looking for an upgraded contract. He’s due $6.125 million in 2015, which is the 11th highest cap hit at his position. For a tight end that performed at an elite level in 2014, he’s earning mid-level money, so his desire for a new deal makes sense.
Yet the Bears aren’t budging and do not appear willing to renegotiate Bennett’s contract. This led to him skipping the voluntary programs this off-season, then showing up to mandatory minicamp rustier than the bumper of a 1992 Honda Civic.
Bennett said he plans to attend training camp next month but you can bet he won’t be happy if he’s still playing under the four-year, $20.4 million contract he signed in 2013. If he’s distracted by his desire for a better deal, injuries or a drop-off in production may follow.
That puts a lot of pressure on the team to find a competent backup tight end, one who can take a little bit off Bennett’s plate and fill in as a starter if need be.
The Bears will head to training camp with seven tight ends on the roster but in all likelihood the backup competition will boil down to a battle between Dante Rosario and Zach Miller.
The Case for Rosario
Rosario has served as the club’s primary backup the past two seasons. In 2014, he caught 16 passes for 116 yards, making the most of his limited opportunities to contribute in the passing attack.
In addition, he’s also an underrated blocker, particularly in the run game. In 2013, Pro Football Focus graded Rosario one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL.
Rosario has developed chemistry with Cutler and already played a year in Denver under John Fox in 2011, so there’s familiarity there as well.
Finally, Rosario is a core special teams player and has served in that role throughout his eight-year career.
The Case for Miller
In 2009 and 2010, Miller caught 41 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns, two-year totals that eclipse Rosario’s production the past four years combined. In the preseason opener last year, filling in for Bennett with the first team, Miller caught six passes for 68 yards.
With Miller, health is always a concern but when he’s been on the field, he’s produced at a high level. His upside far exceeds that of Rosario and it’s fair to assume Miller could handle a big chunk of the receiving load if Bennett misses time.
Rosario is a decent all-around player, one who does the little things well, but his value is very limited. He’s not going to hurt the offense but games will never be won or lost based on Rosario’s performance on Sunday.
The same would likely be the case if he’s forced into starting duty this year. There’s value in a steady performer but the offense would take a dramatic step back if Bennett is injured and Rosario is next man up.
With Miller, the Bears have a talented pass catcher who could be an outstanding complimentary option in the passing attack. And if anything does happen to Bennett, the passing attack could easily stay the course with Miller in his place.
The problem with Miller is that he just cannot stay healthy. Due to numerous injuries, which includes torn tendons in his foot suffered in Week 2 of the preseason last year, Miller hasn’t played a regular-season snap in the NFL since Week 6 of the 2011 campaign.
How can the Bears depend on a player that brittle?
Rosario is a career backup who has played for five NFL teams in eight years. He’s about as ho-hum as they come but he’s dependable and he brings a lot to special teams, neither of which can be said about Miller.
The Bears will likely keep Bear Pascoe in the blocking role and most teams keep just three tight ends on the roster, leaving one spot for Miller or Rosario. There’s a chance the club will keep four tight ends but that’s not a luxury most teams can afford.
While Miller is a more exciting candidate, Rosario’s consistency in all phases of the game, as well as a near-spotless injury history, make him the safer and more prudent option.
If Miller stays healthy and tears up the preseason, the Bears may not be able to pass on his upside, but if both players perform at a similar level, Rosario should end up on the 53-man roster.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.