Bears may be able to buck NFLs TE trend

687368.png

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 face decisions on Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and 2017 roster

Bears face decisions on Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and 2017 roster

What we "knew" most about the 2016 Bears heading into the season is that, offensively, Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery would be the straws that stirred the offensive drink. 

Thanks to injuries, suspension and a perfect storm that resulted in a 3-13 season, the straw had a hole in it, the team still couldn't collectively close out games and a fifth-round rookie (Jordan Howard) and a second-year undrafted free agent (Cam Meredith) turned into the greatest causes for optimism on that side of the ball. 

The news that the team is shopping Cutler is hardly news-bulletin worthy. We've written about Cutler Fatigue here and discussed it on CSN's BearsTalk Podcasts for some time now. A breakup has seemed inevitable after eight years of .500 ball when he's been behind center. The tricky part is finding an alternative that would be a marked improvement for a coaching staff that might need to finish .500 to continue on the job in 2018. Yet that's the gamble that must be taken for a franchise that almost needs to move on, for better or worse, in order to find a way out of the muddy ditch it's found itself in.

Cutler must first be deemed healthy enough after labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder - something similar to what Buffalo did with Tyron Taylor this week following groin surgery. But Taylor might be a safer bet to stay with the Bills than Cutler is here. Those medicals might be out there already around the league if shopping has truly begun. And while a new destination for Cutler might not earn him the same salary (roughly $15 million) he'd make here, the thinking here is he'd prefer a fresh start just as much as the Bears want one. 

So let's go shopping.

Cleveland? No. 

San Francisco as a stopgap starter? Maybe. There's tons of salary cap space while a successor is groomed, and there's the Shanahan (Kyle/Mike) Factor. But more losing. 

How about Jacksonville to push his young clone, Blake Bortles? Perhaps. There's still a loaded, talented young defense that has yet to reach a promising ceiling, and a couple of talented receivers. 

The Los Angeles Rams could provide a push for Jared Goff (though it's hard not to see Goff being the starter, for better or worse). But if something should happen, Cutler would be ready, with Todd Gurley, what should be a respectable defense and a location close to where wife Kristin Cavallari can return to actressing. 

Jay in Buffalo? Good one! 

Arizona has already shot down interest. 

We don't see Denver wanting him back as they await Paxton Lynch's maturity with Trevor Siemian as a bridge. 

Reuniting with Adam Gase in Miami could be an option with Ryan Tannehill's health still a mystery. 

Then there's always Houston. I'm looking for Tony Romo's ultimate destination impacting Jay's. 

But retiring, as some reports this week suggested? No. Despite the public perception, Jay is a competitor, and I truly believe that still runs through him. He may not get to prove his reputation wrong before he retires, but despite what body language experts feel, I believe he'd still like to prove something. But I'm also not counting on any team giving up a draft pick for him. Teams know the Bears will release him, but if a club lower on the waiver claim wire truly desires him, Ryan Pace has squeezed something out from teams for his players on the discard pile before.

As for Jeffery, all remains quiet on the franchise tag front. The seal remains tight at Halas Hall over whether there have been any negotiations this past week, and if so, whether they've moved in a positive, long-term direction. 

Two things to keep in mind: the Bears did not tag him last year until the day before the deadline to do so. That deadline this year is March 1. The other is the fact that other teams in similar situations (such as Washington with Kirk Cousins and Kansas City with Eric Berry and Dontari Poe) have yet to make moves either, as that deadline looms. If the Bears determine they'll cut ties with Cutler, Eddie Royal and Lamarr Houston, that will free up another $24 million in cap space on top of the $60 million-plus they have already. Perhaps that factors into the decision on Jeffery, who'd get paid $17 million in 2017 under a second straight franchise tag for a team that needs play-makers and a coaching staff that needs wins next season. Letting him go would require attention and a portion of those dollars to replace him in the draft and/or free agency.

We leave all our internet/talk radio caller GM's with this question: Would you REALLY want to be in Ryan Pace's shoes this offseason? Can you be as shrewd, wise and run the table to the extent he must, especially at the most important, franchise-shaping position (which, granted, he's put on the back-burner his first two years)? And "get it right" to build momentum moving forward for a franchise that's reached the playoffs just once in the past decade? The rebuild remains substantial. And so are the decisions he faces in a crucial offseason.

Jay Cutler is reportedly considering retirement

Jay Cutler is reportedly considering retirement

This is apparently the week of Jay Cutler news.

Reports surfaced earlier this week the Bears are pushing hard to find a trade partner for the enigmatic quarterback, though Ian Rapoport reported the organization informed Cutler in mid-January they were shopping him around.

It seems clear Cutler's time in Chicago has come to an end and an ensuing move is more of a formality at this point.

But apparently Cutler may not even suit up again...for ANY team.

Rapoport reported on NFL Network Wednesday night Cutler is mulling over retirement, even as he's healthy and working out now after shoulder surgery.

"There's no guarantee Cutler even plays in 2017, one of several veterans who are still considering whether they want to play or not play, retire, walk away. A lot of things at play here for Jay Cutler."

Host Dan Hellie immediately followed up, asking for clarification on the retirement part.

"It is a consideration; it's something he's confided in people," Rapoport said. "But Dan, I would say, it's not a surprise for quarterbacks this age. We've heard [Ben] Roethlisberger talk about it; we've heard Tony Romo talk about it. If it's not perfect, if he can't find the team he wants or the contract he wants, it's very easy for Jay Cutler to walk away."

Whoa.

Cutler, 33, has made more than $112 million in his 11-year career and is owed at least another $2 million in 2017, even if he's cut by the Bears.