Bears may be able to buck NFLs TE trend

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Bears may be able to buck NFLs TE trend

The New England Patriots accomplishments with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham. What Green Bay has done with Jermichael Finley.

The NFL is replete with success stories built around high-achievement tight ends. The Bears saw their tight-end-as-a-receiving-threat structure broken apart under the Mike Martz regime that sent Greg Olsen to Carolina and brought Brandon Manumaleuna to Chicago, replaced by Matt Spaeth.

The result was a gaping void in the Chicago offense that leaves the Bears behind the NFL curve and in franchise difficulty at a time when myriad other needs require immediate attention.

In fact, the Bears may be in no trouble at all at the position once put on the NFL map by Mike Ditka, for a couple of reasons.

First, coach Lovie Smith has staunchly championed the upside of Kellen Davis (although Davis is an unrestricted free agent, so keeping him would seem an offseason priority) and the positives of Spaeth.

I think if you want to feature Kellen Davis, you can do that, Smith said last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. Great size, great in-line blocker, skilled enough of an athlete to be able to move outside and do some things. I really like him.

The eye-rolling that followed Smiths remarks about two tight ends with fewer career catches combined than either Graham or Gronkowski had last season alone is understandable.

But of the seven tight ends among the NFLs top 40 receivers based on catches in 2011 (Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez, Jason Witten in Dallas, Tony Gonzalez with Atlanta, Dustin Keller with the Jets, Brett Celek in Philadelphia), only the teams of Graham, Gronkowski-Hernandez got further than the first round of the playoffs.

And the simple tight-end logic is that if you dont have a Graham or a Gronkowski, you find some other way to win.

The New York Giants did. Pretty well. Twice.

Over-hyped position?
The infatuation with tight ends may be misplaced or at least over-hyped. When something appears successful, the rush to emulate is usually a stampede, whether on the rosters or in the media.

The Giants won this Super Bowl with Jake Ballard as their lead tight end. The Packers won last years with Finley, but Finley was arguably a wide receiver. (He said so himself, insisting that if the Packers were going to slap a franchise tag on him, it should be the wide receiver one, not the far lower one for tight ends.)

The Saints got a combined 83 receptions out of Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas in their Super Bowl season. But like Finley, more than a little factor there was the nature of the offense as well as four significant wide receivers (Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore).

The Pittsburgh Steelers got past Arizona in the 2008 Super Bowl with Heath Miller catching 48 on top of 17 byMatt Spaeth. The Steelers beat the Cardinals for that Lombardi Trophy with a tight end collection of Leonard Pope, Ben Patrick and Jerame Tuman, none of whom caught more than 11 passes.

Put another way: The NFC is the ascendant conference right now and you can win the NFC without a tight end stopping by on his way to Canton.
Bears perspective

Looking to the immediate future of the Chicago Bears offense under Mike Tice, there is not likely to be any panic shopping for a tight end. Nor should there be.

Phil Emery stuck gold in Kansas City when the Chiefs picked Tony Moeaki (out of Wheaton Warrenville South) in the third round of the 2010 draft. Moeaki caught 47 passes in 2010 before missing all last season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason. The Bears have two third-rounders this draft if Emery sees another Moeaki.

But Tice built his Minnesota Vikings offense with Scott Linehan (a West Coast descendant) and a tight end in Jim Kleinsasser who was a 272-pound hybrid. Sort of a Manumaleuna with talent.

Tices depth charts listed three tight ends but one was Kleinsasser and the other two were basically just guys. The Bears currently have a possible Kleinsasser in Tyler Clutts, a 260-pound former tight end who can catch and provide escort duty for Matt Forte.

Kleinsassers highest catch total was 46 on a team that was wideout-based with Cris Carter and Randy Moss. With Davis, Spaeth and Clutts, the Bears also have lower-tier options in Kris Adams coming off IR and Andre Smith returning from some time on practice squad.

A Graham or Gronkowski (even an Olsen) in Chicago would be an upgrade. But enough teams are winning without one that any over-reaction toward the position is questionable at best.

And unless Smith was lying about his Kellen Davis thoughts, the Bears dont sound like they consider themselves at the critical stage at tight end.

Bears challenged to replace coaches involved in three all-rookie selections

Bears challenged to replace coaches involved in three all-rookie selections

As a sign of good things to come, three Bears were selected to the NFL's all-rookie teams. But there's a negative thread running through the honors of linebacker Leonard Floyd being named to the rookie defensive team, and the selections of center Cody Whitehair and running back Jordan Howard to the rookie offensive team.
 
The concern lies not in the players or the personnel department under GM Ryan Pace that designated them for drafting. It is in the fact that the position coaches for all three rookie standouts are all gone from the staff of coach John Fox.
 
Finding talent is difficult enough. Developing it is the crucial next step in the football process, and what was evident in the rookie years of Floyd, Whitehair and Howard was that each developed into NFL-grade players with some very solid coaching.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
 
Offensive line coach Dave Magazu was not brought back, reportedly in favor of former Miami Dolphins assistant offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, as reported by Sirius XM radio and Sporting News.
 
Stan Drayton, who coached Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State, then Howard this year, left for the University of Texas.

Outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt appeared to be exiting for the New York Jets, although sources report that the deal may not go through.
 
Coaches can't create talent but they can certainly foster and maximize it. Replacing the mentors of their three top rookies from arguably the best draft class since 2004 (Tommie Harris, Tank Johnson, Bernard Berrian, Nathan Vasher) now becomes a talent search in its own right.

Accolades keep pouring in for Bears' 2016 rookie class

Accolades keep pouring in for Bears' 2016 rookie class

The 2016 NFL Draft could be one that will define Ryan Pace's tenure as GM of the Bears.

Just last week, Jordan Howard became the second rookie running back in Bears franchise history to be named to the Pro Bowl since Gale Sayers in 1965.

The PFWA released their 2016 All-Rookie Team on Tuesday, and Bears center Cody Whitehair, linebacker Leonard Floyd and Howard all made the list.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Howard, the Bears' fifth round selection (150th overall) out of Indiana, set the rookie franchise record with 1,313 rushing yards on 252 carries and 6 touchdowns. Howard also had 29 receptions for 298 yards and one receiving touchdown.

Floyd, the No. 9 overall selection out of Georgia, registered 33 tackles, 7 sacks and 9 quarterback hits in 12 games.

Whitehair, a second-round pick out of Kansas State, started all 16 games at center for the Bears after spending the majority of the preseason at guard.

The Bears (tied with the Chargers) had the second-highest number of selections behind the Kansas City Chiefs.

Check out the complete 2016 PFWA All-Rookie Team below:

Offense

QB – Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
RB – Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys; Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
WR – Sterling Shepard, New York Giants; Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
TE – Hunter Henry, San Diego Chargers
C – Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
G – Joe Thuney, New England Patriots; Laremy Tunsil, Miami Dolphins
T – Jack Conklin, Tennessee Titans; Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions

Defense

DL – Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers; DeForest Buckner, San Francisco 49ers; Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs; Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
LB – Jatavis Brown, San Diego Chargers; Leonard Floyd, Chicago Bears; Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
CB – Vernon Hargreaves III, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
S – Karl Joseph, Oakland Raiders; Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons

Special Teams

PK – Wil Lutz, New Orleans Saints
P – Riley Dixon, Denver Broncos
KR – Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
PR – Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
ST – Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs