Olsen Never Been Much of a Blocker

Whether he wants to or not, Greg Olsen is going to have to become a better blocker from the tight end position if he's planning to be an indispensible part of Mike Martz's offense for the Chicago Bears.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the tight end was largely ignored in Mike Martz's Rams offenses during the seven seasons he was in St. Louis.

So maybe Bears tight end Greg Olsen does have something to worry about, and not just the presence of free agent Brandon Manumaleuna, a blocking tight end signed by the team last month for $15 million over five years.

Martz was the Rams' coach from 2000 until five games into the 2005 season, when he was fired. In 1999, he was the Rams' offensive coordinator under Dick Vermeil. Manumaleuna spent five of those seasons (2001-05) in the Rams' offense, including three as the starter, although he never caught more than 29 passes.

The most productive season any tight end had for Martz in St. Louis was in 2001, when Ernie Conwell caught 38 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers hardly compare to Olsen's 60 catches, 612 yards and eight touchdowns last year.

For the most part, Martz's tight ends have been run blockers and pass protectors first and foremost. But when Martz was hired by the Bears last month, he seemed open to the idea of utilizing Olsen's skills as a pass catcher.

"You take a look at what you have at tight end and who that guy is and what he can do, and then you go from there," Martz said. "In the past, we've always had these big, physical tight ends who we tried to utilize in the running game and as pass blockers and then as wide receivers. Greg is different."

Olsen's statistics in 2009 weren't spectacular, but they exceeded the combined totals for all tight ends in any of the seven seasons that Martz was in St. Louis. Despite the Rams' prolific passing numbers, the combined number of catches by St. Louis tight ends never topped 50 under Martz. In 2000, all Rams tight ends caught a total of just 21 passes, and in '04 and '05 they caught only 22 passes.

Martz realizes that Olsen is a different kind of tight end than what he's had in the past, but Olsen still has to be able to block.

TE Greg Olsen
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh

"When you can get a defense with normal personnel, and then move [Olsen] like you would a receiver in the slot and get him matched up on linebackers and safeties, it's going to be a mismatch," Martz said. "Then, with his ability to stand in there and slug it out, he's a complete player at that position, which is multi-dimensional."

It may be wishful thinking on Martz's part to believe that Olsen is an effective blocker, and the acquisition of the 295-pound Manumaleuna seems to cast doubt on Olsen's blocking ability. But the 6-5, 255-pound three-year veteran has the size and athleticism to at least become a decent blocker.

"[Olsen] is a little bit like Ernie Conwell," Martz said, "but he's a little bit more fluid than Ernie was. Ernie was a very physical player, and he had speed. Because Greg has such great body control and is a fluid route runner, there are so many things that he can do, which is something I've not experienced yet."

For most of Lovie Smith's tenure as the Bears coach, the only constant at the safety positions has been change.

The last time the Bears went through a season with the same player at either safety spot for all 16 games was in 2004, when Mike Green made every start at strong safety. The revolving door has spun just as quickly at strong safety as it has at free. Since the start of the 2004 season, there have been a combined 40 lineup changes at the safety positions – 20 at free and 20 at strong.

And the problem appears to be getting worse. Last year saw the most safety turnover in any of Smith's six seasons. There were 11 lineup changes, six at strong and five at free.

The Bears have browsed free agency for safety help but are yet to buy. So the search is expected to move to next month's draft, but they don't have a selection until the third round.

The Bears have had some success drafting safeties in later rounds, but not much in terms of consistent, high-level production. Kevin Payne, a fifth-round pick in 2007, has started five games at free safety and 16 at strong safety. Craig Steltz, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has made minimal contributions, yet he started the final two games last season, one at each safety position. Chris Harris was a sixth-round pick in 2005, and Green was a seventh rounder in 2000.

Several factors have accounted for the musical-chairs situation in the secondary, with inconsistent play and injuries at the top of the list. The Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe is the pearl of free-agent safeties this year. But he hasn't received much interest, primarily because snagging the restricted free agent would be expensive since the Rams are expected to match almost any offer, although that isn't a guarantee.

It's worth noting that, in addition to picking off 18 passes and forcing 14 fumbles in the past four years, Atogwe has started 60 of 64 games, providing productivity and durability. Atogwe is the kind of athlete with range and big-play ability that the Bears desire, and that kind of player might not be around by the time the 76th pick in the draft rolls around.

"We just ask that guy to do an awful lot," Smith said, "and you need to invest a little bit more into the safety position. We've hit well on some lower picks, but sometimes you need to invest a little bit more, whether that's through free agency or through higher draft picks."

There are four outstanding free safeties in this year's draft, but then there's a major drop-off in talent.

Tennessee's Eric Berry, Texas' Earl Thomas and USC's Taylor Mays are expected to be taken in the first 25 picks, and South Florida's Nate Allen could also sneak into the first round. After that, the next true free safety might have only fifth-round value.

But there are a handful of strong safeties who could project to free and might be worth a third- or fourth-round pick, including Oregon's T.J. Ward, Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, South Carolina's Darian Stewart and Kansas' Darrell Stuckey.

"Right now, everybody's looking for a more athletic safety," said general manager Jerry Angelo, who has the final say on draft day.

"The demands of what they're being asked to do [are great], in coverage particularly [because] offenses are spreading defenses out. So teams are starting to look for more the athletic safeties, and in the last few years you're starting to see those players go higher in the draft.

"It's becoming a more and more difficult position to find and to play."

No one knows that better than the Bears. ...

At the NFL meetings in Orlando, Smith seemed to contradict the role that Martz envisioned last month for Devin Hester.

Martz had suggested that Hester's contributions in the offense might be scaled back, allowing him to make a bigger impact on special teams. Martz speculated that Hester might get most of his snaps in the slot, as a No. 3 receiver. But Smith said he wants Hester to get as many touches on offense as possible, similar to what it was last season.

"Mike had been here a few days. [The media] kind of hit him with questions," Smith told reporters.

"He likes the potential of Devin as a full-time receiver. I don't see him [getting fewer snaps]. Not right now. To me, if you have a player as exciting as Hester, you want to get him as many touches as you possibly can. We're not going in saying he's going to get more plays or less plays. We'll keep all our options open.

"We definitely will still use him as a wide receiver. It will probably be the same role as last year: punt returner and full-time receiver. Mike is very comfortable with him being one of our lead receivers, and it is unlimited what he can do."

That makes the most sense. Granted, Hester is still not a true No. 1 NFL receiver, but he's the Bears' No. 1 until someone on the roster outplays him.

At one point last year, Hester was on pace for a 1,000-yard season, but his effectiveness plummeted after the half-way point, partially because of a calf injury that knocked him out for three full games and part of a fourth. In the final seven games of the season, Hester caught just nine passes but still led the Bears with 757 receiving yards.

In the first eight games of '09, Hester caught 41 passes for 548 yards, numbers that project to 82 catches and 1,096 yards over a full season. ...

The NFL released the final draft order, including all compensatory picks. The Bears' first pick is at No. 75, the 11th pick of the third round.

The Bears were supposed to have the 12th pick in the third round (76th overall), but the Redskins, who draft fourth, used their third-round pick in a supplemental draft last summer to take Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon, which moves the Bears up one spot.

The Bears traded their first-round choice (11th overall) to the Broncos as part of the Jay Cutler deal, and their second-round selection (42nd overall) went to the Buccaneers for defensive end Gaines Adams.

The Bears have one pick in each of the final four rounds, choosing 109th overall (fourth round), 141st (fifth), 181st (sixth) and 218th (seventh). ...

The rumored Bears-Cowboys clash on Thanksgiving afternoon remains just that for now – a rumor – but it makes a lot of sense. Process of elimination favors that matchup.

The NFL and FOX TV know that the second game of the day will attract a huge audience, regardless of the Cowboys' opponent. So it's not necessary to involve one of their NFC East opponents – the Giants, Eagles or Redskins – to make the game a ratings success. That leaves only the Lions, Bears and Saints among the Cowboys' NFC opponents, and the Lions host the first game of Thanksgiving Day.

The Saints would be a huge draw but, again, that isn't necessary on a day when even casual NFL fans are glued to the tube.

The last time the Cowboys played host to the Bears on Turkey Day, Nov. 25, 2004, it was a major disaster for the visitors, who were pounded 21-7. Craig Krenzel started at quarterback for the Bears and completed 5 of 10 passes for 46 yards before leaving with an injury.

Jonathan Quinn relieved and was even worse, completing 10 of 21 for 86 yards with two interceptions for a passer rating of 19.2. The Bears' only touchdown came on a 45-yard interception return by R.W. McQuarters. The offense produced just 140 total yards, and the two-headed QB monster suffered six sacks.

"H-back is probably what Greg has been best suited for up to this point. Right now, that's been more Greg's role. We haven't talked a lot about him being an in-line tight end. That's the next step we have to take with Greg, getting him more comfortable to play in-line tight end." – Coach Lovie Smith, on tight end Greg Olsen, who will be required to block more often and more effectively in Mike Martz's system.

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