The Chicago Bears came into the 2015 campaign believing Martellus Bennett's talent would result in a game-changing presence in the middle of the field, as well as in the red zone.
That never came to fruition and, by the end of the season, it was Zach Miller who looked like the club's tight end of the future.
Let's take a closer look at the performance of Chicago's tight ends this year before analyzing the team's best course of action going forward.
Bennett was a beast in former head coach Marc Trestman's offense. In 2014, Bennett caught 90 passes for 916 yards and 6 TDs, and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
As a result of his stellar season, Bennett made it clear to Bears management his desire for un upgraded contract. Yet Bears brass - which included a brand new GM and coaching staff that were still trying to wrap their heads around the entire roster, while simultaneously making copious changes at every level of the organization - chose not re-structure Bennett's contract. This led to Bennett sitting out all of the voluntary workouts during the off-season.
Bennett eventually showed up for the mandatory sessions, when his paycheck was on the line, and said all of the right things upon his return.
"It’s just business. I have no hard feelings against anybody," Bennett said in August. "Some business deals go the way you want. I had several business deals this off-season that worked and didn’t work out. For me it’s just another business deal, and then that’s just the way it is. Some deals get done, some don’t. Still got to come work and do my job. So I’m really just trying to build and grow as a player. I feel like I’m a lot better now this year than I was last year coming in in several different areas. So I’m super excited to go out there and be a part of the team and just be out there with the guys. It’s just fun playing football. Only thing I can do is control what I can control, and the only thing I can control is my performance on the field."
Yet Bennett's play on the field never matched his coach speak. Despite being the most targeted player on the team through the first half of the season, Bennett was nearly invisible in the passing attack.
He played 12 games this year and had just one game in which he tallied more than 59 yards receiving. He was lethargic as a blocker and uninterested in tough catches, never once winning a 50/50 ball.
He finished with 53 receptions for 439 yards and 3 TDs - all the lowest totals of his past four years as a full-time starter - and was placed on IR in Week 13 due to a rib injury. The week before, he reportedly blew up on the practice field, leading to the convenient rib injury, which forced him to miss the Week 12 game against the Green Bay Packers. Bennett did not accompany the team to Lambeu and admitted to not even watching the game on TV.
Two weeks later, he was sent home for good.
Miller has always been a talented player, yet the six-year veteran has been pummeled by injuries. He showed promise in the first preseason contest last year with two touchdowns but then again landed on season-ending IR a week later.
Yet the Bears saw enough in him last season to invite him back to Bourbonnais, where he beat out Dante Rosario for the club's primary backup position. Amazingly, Miller stayed healthy for 15 games this season and emerged as the top playmaker on offense by season's end.
After sparse use through the first eight weeks - during which he tallied just 3 catches for 35 yards - Miller broke out in Week 9 with a one-handed game-winning grab in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers. The following week, he caught 5 passes for 107 yards and 2 TDs.
He became the primary starter in Week 14 and posted the following numbers from Weeks 14-16: 5-85-1, 6-57-0, 7-69-0. He was the only consistent option in an injury-riddled passing attack and Miller ran with the opportunity.
He finished the year with 34 catches for 439 yards and a team-high 5 TDs. He had the exact same number of receiving yards as Bennett but did it with 19 fewer catches.
Miller was also very good as a pass blocker, allowing just 1 QB hurry, and no QB hits or sacks. His Pass Block Efficiency (39 pass block snaps divided by 1 total pressure = 98.1 percent) was Top 10 at his position.
Housler spent most of the 2015 campaign with the Cleveland Browns before being cut in Week 8. The Bears picked him up a month later and activated him in Week 14.
The five-year veteran played four games at the end of the season, catching 3 passes for 27 yards. Housler started the season finale and caught 2 passes for 18 yards.
The Bears traded a sixth-round pick a week before the start of the regular season to the Houston Texans for Lee, who was an undrafted rookie out of Bowie State.
It was a head-scratching move at the time and even more so now, as Lee did not prove worthy of a draft pick. He was active all 16 games and caught just 1 pass for 7 yards, while his blocking was average at best. At a svelte 6-4, 235 pounds, his in-line blocking is unlikely to improve substantially.
Bennett's pattern of selfish behavior goes back three seasons. In his first training camp, Bennett took on the entire secondary following a play in 11-on-11 drills. The following off-season, he was a culprit in three fights, culminating in his body slam of first-round pick Kyle Fuller in Bourbonnais.
Publicly, the Bears aren't ruling out bringing back Bennett. GM Ryan Pace said last week the relationship between Bennett and the organization has not been fractured.
"No, not at all," he said. "Martellus, as you guys know, is a versatile player. He's very athletic for his size. He's a good blocker, good receiver, good in the red zone. Unfortunately he got hurt. The first thing is he's got to get healthy."
Pace did admit that a discussion about Bennett's future, as well as his contract, will soon take place.
"I'm sure I'll talk to his agent, we'll talk to him more," said Pace. "Those meetings will be thorough as we go through this week."
Pace isn't going to publicly bash a player he's trying to trade, which is an option the Bears will pursue thoroughly this off-season. Pace and head coach John Fox sent Brandon Marshall - who caught 109 passes for 1,509 yards and 14 TDs this year - to New York for a ham sandwich because they felt his presence in the locker room, as well as publicly, was hurting the team more than his on-field numbers were helping them. So how is Bennett any different?
Don't be surprised to hear news of the Bears actively shopping Bennett this upcoming off-season. And if Pace decides to outright cut him, the team would clear $5.185 million in cap space.
The Bears would then turn to Miller, although that creates it's own set of problems. Miller has an extensive injury history and he'll be 32 in September. Banking on an older veteran who is always one play away from a season-ending injury is no way to go through life.
If the team is hell bent on moving Bennett, they'll need to add insurance at the tight end position. Miller is worth re-signing to a short-term, incentive-laden deal, but drafting a young tight end would also be prudent.null