Bears Training Camp Preview: Tight End

We analyze in detail the seven tight ends the Chicago Bears will bring to training camp in Bourbonnais, including a disgruntled Unicorn, a new edge blocker, a heated backup battle and more.

Prior to the 2013 season, few NFL fans had heard of Julius Thomas. The Denver Broncos tight end was entering his third NFL season and had one career catch under his belt.

That was Adam Gase’s first year as offensive coordinator for the Broncos and he turned Thomas into a star. In two seasons under Gase, Thomas racked up 108 catches for 1,277 yards and a whopping 24 touchdowns.

Due to his production in Gase’s offense, Thomas is now the highest paid tight end in the NFL.

With Gase currently in charge of the Chicago Bears offense, what can we expect from the club’s tight ends?

Let’s break down what to watch for from this crowded position group during training camp.

Martellus Bennett

Bennett is entering his eighth NFL season and his third in Chicago. He’s coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign in 2014, a year in which he set career highs in nearly every single receiving category.

Among tight ends last season, Bennett finished 4th in yards per game (57.3), 3rd in yards after the catch (449), 7th in first downs (43), 1st in receptions (90) and 3rd in receiving yardage (916).

In two years with the Bears, he’s compiled 155 receptions for 1,675 yards, which far exceeds the production of Thomas, the richest tight end in the game.

Yet despite his elite production, Bennett is only the 11th highest paid tight end in the NFL. The discrepancy between his play level and pay level is stark, which is why he’s looking for a new deal.

After sitting out all of the voluntary programs this off-season, Bennett finally showed up for mandatory minicamp two weeks ago but looked out of shape and rusty. He also admitted to being completely unfamiliar with the new playbook.

It’s unlikely Bennett will skip training camp, as he’d begin incurring fines immediately upon holding out, but it’s clear the self-proclaimed Black Unicorn is unhappy.

“I think that everybody … should be lobbying for new contracts,” Bennett said. “If your performance is at a high level and you're playing to a high level, then you want to be compensated for the level that you play at. It's no different for me than it is for everybody else. I think every American, every person in the whole world should be trying to get a new contract, and if they're not, it's silly.”

Whether he gets a new deal or not, Bennett is going to be on the field this season as Chicago’s No. 1 tight end and he’ll play a huge role in Gase’s offense.

There are very few tight ends in the league that possess Bennett’s all-around skill set. Gase knows this, which is why he’d be crazy to ignore him in the passing attack. Expect plenty of plays drawn up specifically for Bennett, who has developed chemistry with Jay Cutler for two seasons. In addition, Bennett can more than hold his own as an edge blocker.

He might think he’s underpaid at $6.125 million in 2015 but at 28 years old, Bennett is playing for more than just this season, as he’s still young enough to earn one more substantial contract. It wouldn’t look good to potential future employers for him to sulk and weigh down the offense this year, as it could cost him future money.

As a result, expect Bennett to eventually learn the playbook and compete at a high level once the games matter. When it’s all said and done, Bennett should easily eclipse Thomas’ production under Gase.

Dante Rosario

Rosario is a 30-year-old career backup entering his ninth season in the NFL. He’s posted single-season career highs of 32 catches (2010) and 313 receiving yards (2009). In the past four seasons combined, he has 34 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns.

He’s not the type of player around whom you can build your offense but Rosario is one of the better backup tight ends in the league. He makes the occasional play as a receiver and he’s a quality run blocker.

During off-season practices, Gase used a plethora of two-tight-end sets, so the backup tight-end role in Chicago will be significant. Rosario provides good depth but his upside is limited. If the Bears can’t find a better option among the remaining five tight ends, he’ll again retain his role as the club’s No. 2.

Zach Miller

Miller was once considered a promising young tight-end talent before injuries derailed his career. Due to numerous injuries, he hasn’t played a regular-season NFL snap since Week 6 of 2011.

He had a strong training camp with the Bears last year and scored two touchdowns in the preseason opener, so the talent is still there, even at age 30.

Miller could be one of the biggest surprises on the team this year. He doesn’t offer much as a blocker but he’s a far bigger weapon in the passing attack than Rosario. His upside makes him a very attractive backup option.

That said, Miller has to stay healthy in order to contribute. He’s China-doll fragile and is always one play away from a season-ending injury.

Still, his potential in the passing game can’t be ignored. If he can make it through the preseason healthy and again demonstrate his prowess as a pass catcher, Miller may convince the new coaching staff to dump the ho-hum Rosario.

Bear Pascoe

At 6-5, 265 pounds, Pascoe is a big-bodied tight end with power at the point of attack. Over the last two seasons, he’s developed into one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the game. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been a Top 10 run blocker at the tight-end position in each of the past two seasons.

He’s a lumbering tight end that has caught just 18 passes the past three years combined but Pascoe has a ton of value as an edge blocker. When paired with Bennett in two-tight-end sets, the Bears bring one of the best run-blocking tight-end duos in the NFL.

At only 29 years old, Pascoe is the frontrunner to claim the third and final tight-end roster spot in Chicago.

Blake Annen, Chris Pantale, Brian Vogler

These three will be fighting in Bourbonnais for a spot on the practice squad. Annen and Pantale have both been active for five career NFL games, although neither has caught a pass, and Vogler is an undrafted free agent from Alabama.

Of the three, Annen is the most intriguing. At his pro day last year, he ran a reported 4.41 40-yard dash. If he has a strong training camp and shows off his speed in the preseason, he’ll retain his role on the club’s practice squad as a pass-catching tight end with upside.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.



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