There have been numerous additions of lower rung players to the roster in the past few years. Apart from Desmond Clark, the newer players have little upside. The way the Bears have been addressing the roster at this position is similar to the way other teams fill in at offensive guard, where unheralded players often blossom after a few seasons. The strategy has yet to bear any fruit.
Desmond Clark returns for his third season as a Bear and is expected to be the starter. Clark had a steady initial season with the Bears (44/443, 2 touchdowns), but struggled through injuries last year (only 24 catches). Granted, the collection of quarterbacking "talent" throwing the ball to Clark last season might have been the worst the league has ever seen. When he played, he struggled to catch and hold onto the ball. As a pro, Clark has put up respectable numbers in one other season apart from his first with the Bears (2001: 51/566, 6 touchdowns). He played behind Shannon Sharpe in Denver, and has battled myriad injuries throughout the course of his career. As one would suspect of a record-setting college wide receiver (Wake Forest) converted to tight end in the pros, Clark is a better receiver than blocker. He's signed to a long-term deal (through 2008), but the harsh reality is that he likely will not see the end of it if his production doesn't improve this season into the 40-plus reception range.
Dustin Lyman in many ways embodies the Bears' tight end situation over the last twenty years. Lyman was a linebacker at Wake Forest who the Bears selected in the third round of the 2000 draft and moved to tight end. Lyman was a standout linebacker and tight end in high school. The injuries that have plagued other Bear tight ends have never eluded Lyman. Apart from several knee injuries, he's also thrown a ruptured spleen into the mix. Injuries like this force Bear fans to recall players such as Marv Cook, Mike Cobb and Chris Gedney. Always buried on the depth chart, Lyman has never really had a big season for the Bears. The brightest day in his career came against the Green Bay Packers in 2002 when he caught seven passes, two of them for touchdowns. There is no turning him back to linebacker, even though he is one of the better coverage men on kicks and the Bears could use help on the strong side. Too much water has already gone under that bridge. Blessed with good speed, he represents the kind of seam splitting player that can steal the heart from a defense but has never lived up to the potential his athleticism might indicate.
Rounding out the rest of the roster are John Gilmore, John Owens, Gabe Reid, Ron Johnson and Darnell Sanders. Gilmore was activated mid season in 2002 and performed well down the stretch, catching ten passes. The Penn State product hasn't been used as a receiver much since then, but is a very strong run blocker. Sanders was a standout at Ohio State who left school a season too early and hasn't yet amounted to much in the NFL. He lacks speed but has the ability to be an all-purpose tight end. The light hasn't gone on for him just yet. Time is running out on his career if it doesn't soon. Gabe Reid played with some talented tight ends at BYU, but hasn't panned out, either. His season ended early last year after a knee injury. Ron Johnson is a wide receiver they're asking to pack on 20 pounds and make the conversion to tight end. In summary, the depth at tight end consists of players converted from other positions, the injury-prone and unproven journeymen. Of course, there are a few fitting into all of those categories.
If Ron Turner's offense looks anything like it did when he was previously with the Bears, there will probably be around 60 receptions to share among Clark, Lyman and the others. Hopefully someone will be able to reproduce the six touchdown receptions Keith Jennings hauled in during the 1995 season. It will also mean there will be a great need for the tight end to do more blocking in the running game. The under the radar roster additions of sledgehammers like Sanders and Owens could prove key if that's weighted accordingly. Speaking of which, the Bears are carrying a lot of dead weight at this position. There aren't many Bear fans who expect big things from this group of tight ends. It's not too late to make a move, and there might be a free agent or cap casualty that could help properly round out the depth chart. It would be surprising to no one if this position looked completely different by the time camp breaks. If something happens to Desmond Clark, this situation has the potential to get ugly in big hurry.