Worthy Investment

Despite being a projected $17 million under the salary cap, GM Jerry Angelo has said the Bears won't splurge in free agency. He said the same thing a year ago, but dished out more than $50 million in new contracts to boost the offense. While the team is in much better shape than it was going into last off-season, there is at least one area the Bears could improve by spending wisely.

Chicago tight ends combined for a paltry 28 receptions, 250 yards and 3 touchdowns. Don't be fooled by the fact that Desmond Clark was added to the Pro Bowl roster on Wednesday. His 24 catches for 229 yards and two scores don't warrant a trip to Hawaii on their own. He was named to the squad as a need player and has the ability to long snap.

Clark is currently the only tight end under contract for 2006. John Gilmore is an unrestricted free agent and Gabe Reid a restricted free agent.

The Bears have used the tight end as a block first option for far too long and adding a playmaker at the position could open up the offense. It would give a complimentary target to WR Muhsin Muhammad in the passing game. It would also stretch the middle of the field loosen the line of scrimmage for the ground attack.

The draft has several quality prospects at the position, with three possible first-rounders in UCLA's Mercedes Lewis, Georgia's Leonard Pope and Maryland's Vernon Davis. Even though the Bears have shown interest Lewis at the Senior Bowl, using a first round pick on a tight end could be considered a luxury with the need at cornerback.

Free agency could offer a solution at tight end. The crop is not deep, but there are two intriguing names that could hit the open market and would force the Bears think about making an investment.

Dallas' Jason Witten is expected to be available. The Cowboys would like to get him tied up to a new deal. The 6-foot-5, 261-pound Tennessee product has been one of the game's most productive tight ends the last three years with 188 catches for 2,084 yards with 13 touchdowns. He has been around only three years but reached incentives this past year that allow him to skip restricted free agency and go right to the unrestricted market.

The Denver Broncos have an important decision to make by March 1. That is whether to pick up the $1.5 million option on tight end Jeb Putzier's contract or let him become an unrestricted free agent. He's combined for 73 receptions for 1,053 and two touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Either Witten or Putzier could push Clark to the No. 2 tight end, a role he's better suited for. Gilmore or Reid could be re-signed to fill out the depth chart.

There is a drop-off in the available talent after Witten and Putzier. If the Bears were unable to sign either in free agency then turning back to the draft would be the next best option. There are second and third round picks at the position that could develop into starters, such as Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein, Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano and USC's Dominique Byrd.

However, the reality is with this tier of talent, the Bears would probably have to live another year with Clark as the starter and groom a later round selection to be ready to take the top spot in 2007.


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