The Chicago Bears may soon be parting ways with starting tight end Martellus Bennett, whose desire for a new contract last year outweighed his desire to support and facilitate the passing attack.
Bennett was a headache the Bears wanted little to do with last season and his "rib" injury, which led to his IR designation, was a farcical excuse to send him home for good.
If the team trades or cuts Bennett - which would save them more than $5 million in cap space - then the search for his replacement will begin in free agency.
Zach Miller is a good alternative but he's 31, injury prone and is looking for a "big pay day" this off-season. Even if he's re-signed, he's not a long-term option.
With that in mind, let's break down the top tight ends that will soon hit the open market.
Ladarius Green, San Diego (6-6, 240)
Green was drafted by the Chargers in the 4th round of the 2012 draft but never usurped Antonio Gates for the club's starting gig. Still, Green is extremely athletic and fast - he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash - and has the skill set to be a legitimate No. 1 tight end in the NFL. As a bigger part of the Chargers offense last year, due in part to Gates' four-game suspension to start the season, Green caught 37 passes for 429 yards and 4 TDs. Those are solid numbers from a part-time backup competing with a Hall of Fame starter for touches. Green doesn't offer much as a blocker but as a starting pass catcher, he has the potential to be the NFL's breakout player of the year in 2016.
Coby Fleener, Indianapolis (6-6, 251)
The Colts alwasy expected more from Fleener, who is widely considered a bust in Indianapolis. Yet what most forget is that he was constantly battling Dwayne Allen for catches. When Allen was hurt two years ago, Fleener posted 51 catches for 774 yard (15.2 ypc) and 8 TDs. The Bears would take that type of production all day and twice on Sunday. His per-catch average dropped to 9.1 yards last season, a career low, but that was due in large part to the injuries to Andrew Luck. Fleener is just 27 and had a career-high 54 receptions in 2015. In the right offense where he's the focal point, he could easily top his 2014 numbers.
Antonio Gates, San Diego (6-4, 255)
Gates can still perform at a high level when healthy but he's 35 and is constantly banged up. In addition, the Chargers have already expressed publicly their desire to re-sign him, making it unlikely he'll leave San Diego. Moving on.
Jermaine Gresham, Arizona (6-5, 260)
For five seasons with the Bengals, Gresham was a productive pass catcher. From 2010-2014 he never caught less than 46 passes, 460 yards or 4 TDs. In 2012, the year before Cincinnati drafted Tyler Eifert, Gresham caught 64 passes for 737 yards and 5 TDs. He was an afterthought with the Cardinals last year but Gresham is just 27 and still has plenty of good years ahead of him. To boot, he's a quality edge blocker. As an all-around option who will come relatively cheap, the Bears need to seriously consider Gresham.
Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis (6-3, 265)
Allen was always a weapon for the Colts when healthy. Despite splitting time with Fleener, Allen always came up big in Indianapolis, particularly near the goal line - he caught 8 TDs on just 29 receptions in 2014. Yet Allen is always, and I mean always, dealing with injuries. He hasn't played a full season since his rookie year in 2012, missed all but one game in 2013 due to a hip injury and was placed on IR in December last year because of a knee injury. He's injury prone but so was Zach Miller, meaning Allen will come at a discount.
Ben Watson, New Orleans (6-3, 255)
Watson had a career year in 2015, catching 74 passes for 824 yards and 6 TDs. Obviously the 12-year veteran has plenty left in the tank, while he's also an exceptional leader in the locker room. He turned 35 in December, so he's by no means a long-term option but as a one-year rental, the Bears could do a lot worse.
Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville (6-6, 275)
Lewis has spent his entire 10-year career with the Jaguars and has never participated in a playoff game. He'll be 32 in May but he's still a quality in-line blocker with value as a receiver in two-tight-end sets. He's not a No. 1 option at this point in his career but Lewis still has backup value.
Vernon Davis, Denver (6-3, 250)
In nine games after the Broncos traded for him, Davis tallied just 20 catches for 201 yards and no touchdowns. An elite athlete coming out of Maryland in 2006, Davis has lost a step but not a substantial step. He's 32 and on the downslope of his career but if the Bears can find a way to motivate him, Davis could be a free-agent steal.
Ladarius Green: Despite never getting a proper opportunity in San Diego, Green never complained about his lack of touches the past four years. He's a team-first player with top-tier pass-catching talent who is just waiting for his opportunity to be a No. 1 option. If the Bears save $5 million by parting ways with Bennett, they'd be wise to spend that money on a younger player with off-the-charts athleticism. With Green, the Bears would get a 25-year-old whose ceiling is through the roof, one who could help take Chicago's passing attack to the next level.
If they can't land Green, then Fleener is a quality Plan B. He underachieved in Indy but the potential is still there for the 27-year-old.null