One of the worst decisions by former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo was trading away tight end Greg Olson, a former first rounder that was one of Jay Cutler's favorite targets. Olsen was traded because he didn't fit the system of former coordinator Mike Martz – a system everyone knew wouldn't last in Chicago.
As expected, Martz left the team a year later, leaving the offense with no one to fill Olsen's role as the pass catching tight end. As a result, the club had no threat in the middle of the field, which allowed opposing defenses to focus all their attention on receiver Brandon Marshall.
Let's look back at the performance of Chicago's tight ends last season to figure out what went wrong and what can be done to fix the problem going forward.
Through his first four years in the league, the Bears used Kellen Davis sparingly as a pass catcher. He caught just 20 total passes combined in four years, yet he turned those 20 catches into nine touchdowns. Most believed that, if Chicago's offense utilized him more, he could be a force down the seams. It was the reason GM Phil Emery re-signed Davis to a two-year deal this past offseason.
"The Kellen Davis that I saw caught the ball in the end zone the previous year [in 2011]," Emery said. "A high percentage of his total career catches, which were not that high, were end zone catches. [He was] reliable in that area."
TE Kellen Davis
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports
Yet despite being a more focal part of the offense in 2012, Davis regressed as a receiver. The previous year, he caught 18 passes for 206 yards and 5 TDs. Last season, he caught just 19 passes for 229 yards and 2 TDs.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) tallied drops by receivers last year. Davis dropped nearly 30 percent of the passes thrown his way, which was second worst in the NFL. In essence, he showed he could not be relied on to catch the ball down the middle of the field.
As a result, quarterback Jay Cutler had to resort to targeting Brandon Marshall on nearly every play. That didn't always work out, as safeties knew they could cheat to the sidelines, as the odds of Davis making a play down the seams was slim to none.
"Kellen had a rough year," said Emery. "He has shown the ability. Just for whatever reason, hasn't been able to be consistent. I know that's an area that he's going to work on. He's capable of improving and I know he wants to improve."
Despite the vote of confidence from Emery, it would be ridiculous for the Bears to go into 2013 depending on Davis to be the team's threat in the middle of the field. There's a chance the club could keep him on as a secondary option at tight end but don't be surprised if he's cut outright next month.
The tight end position must be addressed this offseason, whether that be through free agency or the draft. New head coach Marc Trestman must find a Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez-type of player that can draw safeties away from Marshall. Cutler and the entire Bears aerial attack will take a big step forward if they can find that pass catching tight end.
Spaeth is not a pass catcher. His role is to block, an area in which he excelled last season. According to PFF, Spaeth was the highest graded run blocker on that team in 2012, better than every offensive lineman. He graded highly as a pass blocker as well.
Spaeth is basically an offensive tackle in a tight end's body. He'll get an occasional crumb in the passing game but his job is to keep defenders at bay. So far, he's been exceptional in that role.
He's signed through next year, so the Bears will get at least one more season of Spaeth and his stellar blocking. If he fits into Trestman's new offense, he could earn another few years as the club's leading edge blocker. It would be money well spent.
In former offensive coordinator Mike Tice's offense, Kyle Adams played the F-back role: a hybrid fullback/tight end. He was used almost exclusively as a blocker last year, catching just four passes for 40 yards.
It remains to be seen whether or not Adams, a former undrafted free agent, will have a role in Trestman's new offense.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.