Bears TE free agency preview

Bears TE free agency preview

March 5, 2013, 3:45 pm
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Bears looking for upgrade over ’12 Davis at TE
 
The Bears were ahead of the curve a few years ago, with their pass-catching tight end in Greg Olsen, via a No. 1 draft choice in the 2007 draft. That went away with the arrival of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and Olsen was traded to Carolina while the Bears went with widebody Brandon Manumaleuna.

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Part of the undoing of the 2012 offense occurred in the preseason evaluation that cast Kellen Davis as a do-all tight end. That was a costly mistake and left the cupboard a little bare going into the Marc Trestman era.
 
2012
 
Davis was the 58th-rated tight end out of 62 graded by Pro Football Focus. He had four penalties assessed but more important, had just 19 total catches vs. eight credited drops. His 43.2-percent “caught” rate was the lowest of any tight end and Cutler threw just 44 passes his direction. Davis averaged just 3.7 yards after the catch and only three of 20 yards or longer, none longer than 25 yards and none for touchdowns over the last nine games.
 
If there was a positive at the position it was Matt Spaeth. Signed as chiefly a blocker, Spaeth was PFF’s seventh-rated tight end  and caught six of the nine passes thrown to him, one for a score (vs. Minnesota). Spaeth played fewer than half the snaps (430) of Davis (980) but graded out as the top run-blocking tight end in the NFL.

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The Bears invested a fourth-round draft choice in Evan Rodriguez but shifted him to a fullback/H-back role.
 
All three are under contract for 2013 but Davis is due a base of $2.4 million, arguably far out of balance with Davis’ production. The Bears beginning 2013 with the same three is considered a bit of a longshot.
 
Needs assessment: 7 (1-10 scale)
 
New tight ends coach Andy Bischoff was clear on the mission statement at the position: "We need a tight end that can create stress in the middle of the field," Bischoff said. "We need a receiver who can catch the ball and we need a receiver who can block enough to be lined up in the backfield."
 
Rodriguez’s forte is as a receiver but the experience as a blocker projects to make him a fit for Bischoff’s “need.”
 
New offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer comes from a New Orleans offense that was fueled to a significant degree by Jimmy Graham and he is unlikely to be comfortable with what Davis brings to the offense. Spaeth does not worry defenses as a receiver but brings a clear strength to the position.
 
Offseason strategy
 
Several quality free agents will hit the restricted and unrestricted markets. The problem is that the position is in full flower around the NFL and teams will be reluctant to let good ones go.
 
The draft class at the position, however, has a number of talents considered possibilities worth first- or second-round picks. NFL personnel guru Gil Brandt has the Bears selecting a tight end at No. 20: Stanford’s Zach Ertz, who caught 69 passes and scored six touchdowns in his first year as the No. 1 after Coby Fleener’s departure for the NFL.

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How much of a need the position is considered to be will play out in the next several weeks. Given the style of offense favored by Trestman and Kromer, action of some kind is expected.
 
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
 
Dennis Pitta, Baltimore -- A restricted free agent who will be a stretch to pry loose from the Ravens. But his 61 catches (two-thirds of the balls thrown to him) and seven TDs make him a quality "get.”
 
Delanie Walker, San Francisco -- The 49ers have an elite TE in Vernon Davis and Walker may be a luxury, with his 21 (of 37) catches. Better run blocker than receiver but played 589 snaps in an offense with Davis preeminent.