By Dan Durkin—
Editor’s note: This is the ninth piece in a series previewing the 2015 Bears as the first training camp practice approaches July 30. You can find them in one spot here as they’re posted.
(CBS) There’s a saying in the NFL that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. What does it mean when a team has seven tight ends? You can make some deductions on your own, but the Bears will definitively answer that question over the next month.
In Martellus Bennett, the Bears have an upper-echelon performer who competes in both the run and pass game. As for the rest of the group? They — which is defined as Dante Rosario and Bear Pascoe — combined for 18 receptions and 119 yards last season.
Martellus Bennett (28, eighth year)
Other competitors: Dante Rosario (30, ninth year), Zach Miller (30, sixth year), Bear Pascoe (29, seventh year), Blake Annen (24, second year), Chris Pantale (25, first year) and Brian Vogler (23, rookie)
Key contributor: Martellus Bennett
Bennett opted not to participate in the initial five weeks of the voluntary offseason program. Miraculously, he showed up once his boycott reached the point where he could’ve been fined $70,000 for skipping mandatory mini-camp in July.
I’ll never begrudge a professional athlete for trying to get more money, especially in the mercenary resource model that NFL owners and the NFLPA collectively bargained back in 2011. However, it’s rather unusual that Bennett’s already reached a point of financial unrest halfway through the deal he chose to sign back in 2013.
Without question, Bennett has outperformed his deal. His 90 receptions last season led all tight ends, yet peers like Marcedes Lewis and Jared Cook took home more money than Bennett did. In fact, Bennett’s season totals in receptions, yardage and touchdowns exceeded the totals of Lewis and Cook combined.
But as far as the Bears’ front office and the letter of the NFL law is concerned, Bennett is under a contract he must honor or be subjected to losing more of what he’s seeking — money.
The truth of the matter is that Bennett has an opportunity this season to strengthen his position at the negotiating table even more in Adam Gase’s offense. In Denver, Gase turned another former college basketball player — Julius Thomas — into the league’s highest-paid tight end.
Gase’s offense is a close study of what personnel groupings opposing defensive coordinators counter with and how they match up in certain formations. In the red zone, he frequently used Thomas as a split end to isolate him in coverage against shorter and smaller athletes. Thomas produced 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
With Brandon Marshall now a Jet, that’s one less mouth for quarterback Jay Cutler to feed in the red zone, which may cause an uptick in Bennett’s touchdown totals this season.
Final thoughts: The Bears are still seeking a true complimentary tight end. Not having one last season, combined with Dante Rosario (whom the team brought back on a one-year, veteran minimum deal) being forced to play out of position as the team’s fullback and move player, contributed to the overall dysfunction on offense.
The team made an effort to lure Virgil Green from the Broncos, but in the end, he chose to stay in Denver and sign a three-year, $8.4-million contract with $1.5 million guaranteed. Such figures show the Bears recognized the hole on their current roster to run some of the “heavy” and “jumbo” multiple-tight end sets that coach John Fox is fond of in the run game.
The Bears changed course and signed a series of one-year deals with block-first tight ends like Bear Pascoe and Chris Pantale. Pascoe caught two passes last season, and Pantale’s next catch in the NFL will be his first.
Zach Miller made a few flash plays in the preseason last year, catching two touchdown passes against the Eagles. But as has been the case throughout his career, he suffered a foot injury just a week later, which forced him to miss the season. Of the group, Miller is the only pass-catching threat, but can he stay on the field and be a factor in the run game when asked to block a six-technique?
For the third straight season, the tight end position is Bennett or bust. Bennett has established himself among the league’s best, but it’s a precipitous drop-off from him to the rest of the group. That’s especially problematic for an offense that heavily utilizes the tight end in both the running and passing game.
Position grade: C.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.