While most of the supposed experts out there are questioning if Jay Cutler has the tools around him to succeed in the passing game, they're forgetting that the Bears feature one of the best one-two punches at tight end in the league.
Desmond Clark played all 16 games for the fourth straight season, catching 41 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown as the starter. Former first-round draft pick Greg Olsen, who technically wasn't the starter but was on the field just as much as Clark, bettered those numbers with 54 receptions for 574 yards and five TDs. The only disappointment at the position this past year was rookie Kellen Davis, drafted in Round 5 to be the third tight end in short-yardage and goal-line situations but proved to be a much better pass catcher than in-line blocker – he was pulled from the lineup in favor of offensive tackle Chris Williams around midseason.
With blocking specialist Michael Gaines signed as a free agent and Fontel Mines still on the roster at this point, there should be some quality competition among this quintet throughout training camp.
Reasons to be Optimistic
Nobody thinks that Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are as good as Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, who Cutler threw to in Denver, but the strong-armed signal caller got the ball to Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham quite often, too.
Scheffler and Graham combined to catch 72 passes for 1,034 yards and seven scores in 2008, so Cutler knows how to get his tight ends involved in the passing game. And Olsen is just as much a receiver as he is a tight end these days, splitting out wide or in the slot as often as he puts his hand on the ground. Davis may have failed as the new and improved John Gilmore during his rookie season, but he's a tremendous target at 6-7 and 262 pounds and always seems to make some great grabs in practice – he may turn out to be a serious receiving threat one of these days.
Gaines was brought in because of his blocking.
Warren Wimmer Photography
Even though it's hard to justify four roster spots set aside for the tight end position, the Monsters of the Midway might do that if Gaines turns out to be the road-grading blocker offensive coordinator Ron Turner needs every now and then.
Causes for Concern
Having a pair of tight ends that can help pick up first downs and keep drives alive is a nice asset to have, but it's difficult to assemble a top-notch aerial assault in the NFL unless the wide receivers are making plays down the field.
If the safeties aren't concerned with the likes of Hester and Bennett doing damage outside the numbers, suddenly Clark and Olsen won't have much room to operate in the middle of the field. And while very few offenses rely on the No. 3 tight end, it's easy to underestimate just how important Gilmore was when he put on a Chicago uniform – he was essentially an extra tackle in the ground game and could catch the ball when necessary. Unless Gaines can do that job or Davis makes a commitment to be a better blocker, then the roster will have a minor hole all season long.
Plus, the mere fact that this team might have to keep four tight ends means another position will likely be a man down.
Clark has been an underrated player ever since he rejuvenated his Windy City career in 2006. Olsen is a star on the rise and an early candidate to make his first Pro Bowl in the NFC. Either Davis or Gaines will have an opportunity to contribute aside from just special teams when the time comes.
It's impossible to project whether or not strength at tight end trumps weakness at wide receiver, but the Midway Monsters have the depth required to find out in 2009.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.