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.

A history of the Bears who served during World War II

A history of the Bears who served during World War II

Six eventual members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the franchise's all-time leader in touchdown receptions.  

Those are among some 45 Bears from the past who served this country during wartime, one of whom made the ultimate sacrifice as we, as a nation, take some time to remember those whose lives were taken protecting our freedom.

Former LSU quarterback Young Bussey played just one year for the Bears, but was part of the 1941 Championship team, contributing two interceptions while playing in 10 of the 13 games. But teammate George McAfee was attributed as saying he was "difficult to coach," and perhaps that's why he left the NFL for the Navy in 1942 after playing for the Bears in a 34-24 win over the Chicago Cardinals on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Bussey earned his way to Lieutenant, but while serving in the Phillipines during the Japanese occupation, was killed in the line of duty in 1945. He was 27.

As we should also remember every November on Veteran's Day to the many men and women who've served, the Bears had several great players, not to mention George Halas, commit to duty, as the organization captured its sixth and seventh world championships in 1943, and then when they got everyone back in 1946.

Halas was a Navy ensign at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1918 during World War I, then served in the Pacific Ocean for 20 months during WWII as Lieutenant Commander, released from his duties as a captain in 1946, receiving a Bronze Star, and received the highest recognition the Navy can give a civilian, the Distinguished Citizens Award.

Quarterback Sid Luckman began serving after the 1943 season, volunteering stateside as a U.S. Merchant Marine ensign. During the 1944 and 1945 seasons, the Hall of Famer would be gone during the week but granted permission to play in games on weekends. But Luckman was on his way from Britain to France when the Allied Invasion of Normandy took place on June 6, 1944.

Two key members of the franchise's war-interrupted glory days were Hall of Fame linemen. Tackle Joe Stydahar served in the Navy in 1943 and 1944. Guard Danny Fortmann served in the Pacific for the Navy the last two years of WWII. And the aforementioned Turner played in just two games for the Bears in 1945, serving stateside as an Air Force physical training instructor.

The one Bears Hall of Famer who truly lost the prime of his career to serve was George McAfee. After two stellar seasons in 1940 and 1941, he missed what would've been his next three seasons and most of a fourth while in the Navy.

Ken Kavanaugh still holds the franchise record with 50 touchdown receptions. He ran 30 bombardment missions over Europe as an Air Force pilot and captain from 1942 through 1944.

Those are the most prominent of the Bears who served but there are more than three dozen others who did as well, surviving their time, and returning home in helping protect our nation.  Halas' son-in-law Ed McCaskey, longtime Bears executive and the late husband of Virginia, won a Bronze Star, serving in the Army during World War II. And the branches of the military tree reach out to your more modern-day Bears. Head coach John Fox's dad was a Navy SEAL, and more recent players like Charles Tillman, Tommie Harris, and Jason McKie all come from military families.

Then there's the building the Bears have called home since 1971. Whatever criticisms one may have of the organization, the decision by them and the Chicago Park District not to place a sponsor's name on Soldier Field for a big payday must be respected and appreciated. "Doughboy" was the informal name given members of the Army or Marines during the first two world wars, and there's a Doughboy statue at Gate O. There's also a Medal of Honor Tribute on the south concourse, and after the renovation, a Memorial Water Wall on the north side, recognizing all who have lost their lives on duty for our country.

We're all connected, somehow, to brave family or friends who've taken it upon themselves to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, if called upon. On this last Monday of May, amidst the family time, the cookouts, and probably even some sports talk or sports watching that comes with it, it's also a time to remember part of the reason we're still here.

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Improvement typically comes in incremental steps, not leaps. And the Bears of 2017, based on what they have done at a handful of positions, the latest being Thursday’s signing of wide receiver Victor Cruz, fit that template.

The clear organizational commitment is to build through the draft, even if injuries have undermined some otherwise apparent upgrades to starting lineups on both sides of the football. But if there is a “theme” to what GM Ryan Pace is doing to muscle up a sluggish roster, it is that the Bears are willing to take flyers on veteran players – with additions like four veteran wide receivers with injury and issue histories – that arguably point to a win-now mindset while draft picks develop and contribute.

Jaye Howard and John Jenkins. Make the defensive line “better?” Than Jonathan Bullard and Will Sutton, probably. But “good?” Mmmmm…..

The game-one tight ends last year were Zach Miller-Logan Paulsen-Gregg Scruggs. Now they’re Miller-Dion Sims-Adam Shaheen (based on a second-round draft choice). “Good?” Maybe, maybe not. “Better?” Obviously, based on Sims alone.

Mike Glennon-Mark Sanchez-Mitch Trubisky. Bears “better” at quarterback? Than Jay Cutler-Brian Hoyer-Matt Barkley, probably. “Good?” Mmmmmm…..

The decisions to sign Glennon and Sanchez to the quarterback depth chart have sparked their shares of understandable cynical skepticism. But Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo were not available in trade, so the Pace decision was to gamble on upside with Glennon over the known quantity of Brian Hoyer (the preference of some coaches) and certainly Jay Cutler, for whom “potential” and “upside” no longer applied.

Add in the aggressive draft of Trubisky and the result was three possibilities of hits on a quarterback (Sanchez and Connor Shaw being combined here as a pair entry in the hit-possibility scenarios). All three were deemed an improvement over Cutler and/or Barkley.

The results may not vault the Bears all the way up to “good” at the pivotal position for any franchise. But “better” is sometimes all you can realistically manage.

Taking a wider-screen look at wide receiver in this context… .

Coach John Fox has cited the need for the Bears to establish the ability to get yardage in bigger chunks. Accordingly, all four of the veteran wideout signings this offseason – Cruz, Rueben Randle, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright –  have posted yards-per-catch seasons of 14 or longer.

All four won’t be on the opening-day roster, but all four offer the promise of major impact. Cruz, Randle and Wright have had seasons of 70 or more receptions, and Wheaton topped out at 53 in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice weren’t available, so “good” was hard to achieve in an offseason in which Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal were expected departures long before their exits. But are Cruz, Randle, Wheaton and Wright, with Kevin White and Cameron Meredith, a “better” starting point than Jeffery, Royal, White, Bellamy, etc. of a year ago?

Obviously. But players with even moderately established NFL “names” (like Cruz, Randle, etal.) are typically available for a reason; teams do not routinely give up on talent. And none of the four come without significant shadows on their NFL resumes, whether for injury or other questions.

Cruz missed most of 2014 and all of the 2015 season, and hasn’t played a full season since his Pro Bowl year of 2012.

Randle was described as a head case by scouts and was so bad that he was let go in the Eagles’ cutdown to 75 last year, followed by disparaging comments from those in and around the organization.

Wheaton flashed promise in his 2014-15 opportunities as a part-time starter but played just three games before a shoulder injury landed him on IR last season.

The Tennessee Titans thought enough of Wright, their 2012 first-round draft choice, to pick up his fifth-year option going into las season. But by week 14 he was benched for tardiness and was a healthy DNP in game 16, announcing after the game that he already knew he was not in the Titans’ plans for 2017.

The prospect of the Bears going from 3-13 to “good” borders on fantasy. But if being among the NFL’s busiest this offseason hasn’t propelled the Bears to that level, the results point to “better.” At this point, that’s something,.