To improve, Bears must re-emphasize TEs
There was once a time when the Bears' tight end position averaged roughly 87 catches and 883 receiving yards over a span of three years.
It was 2007-2009.
Olsen, Chicago's 2007 first-round draft choice, saw his receptions steadily rise under former offensive coordinator Ron Turner, going from 39 as a rookie to 54 in 2008 then a team-high 60 in 2009. Clark, the ninth all-team leading receiver in team history, suffered through an injured-plagued 2009 campaign, but was still considered an effective option for the Bears in the passing game -- the veteran averaged 43 catches and 513 yards the prior three seasons (2006-2008).
So with Olsen and Clark firmly in the mix, the Bears could finally consider tight end a strength of the offense moving forward.
Then Mike Martz was hired as the team's offensive coordinator on Feb. 1, 2010.
It was like the day the music died.
Here is a quick run-down of what happened at tight end the next two years:
Martz pushed for the Bears to sign Brandon Manumaleuna, who caught five passes for 43 yards and a touchdown in 2010. He was cut after failing his physical in July 2011.
Clark had his role reduced to the point that he dressed for a mere five regular-season games in 2010. He was brought back as a free agent the following year then suffered a minor injury and was released prior to the beginning of the regular season. The team instead opted to keep undrafted rookie free agent Kyle Adams, who eventually landed on injured reserve.
Olsen's production declined dramatically in 2010 – his receptions dipped from 60 the year prior to Martz's arrival to 41 in the new offense. Olsen was then traded to Carolina for a third-round pick prior to the 2011 season.
The Bears signed another blocking tight end in Matt Spaeth to replace Manumaleuna. Spaeth had seven catches in 2011.
The end result of Martz's vision: a combined 25 catches for 256 yards from Kellen Davis and Spaeth in 2011.
While Martz and the Bears succeeded in turning the tight end spot into a complete nonfactor on offense, others around the NFL took a much different approach to the position. Coincidently, or maybe not, several of those teams qualified for the divisional round of the postseason, where they continued to feature their tight ends and use them as vertical threats down the field.
It should be noted Martz, oddly enough a former tight end himself at Fresno State, worked with Davis in 2008 while offensive coordinator of the 49ers. Predictably, Davis languished in Martz’s system, catching a mere 31 balls for 358 yards a pair of touchdowns.
However, once San Francisco fired Martz, Davis exploded the following year and posted a career-best 78 receptions for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Coincidence? Hardly. Just another example of how Martz selfishly and stubbornly chooses his "system" instead of properly evaluating the talent on his roster and coaching to their strengths, not his own.
Now comes the question of how the Bears are going to salvage the neglected tight end position. Obviously, getting rid of Martz and elevating Mike Tice was the first step, but are the Bears in need of a serious personnel upgrade?
Maybe not, according to Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
"We have an excellent tight end," Smith said at his end of the year press conference. "We brought Matt Spaeth here to primarily be a blocker for us and he filled that role well. Kellen Davis can do anything the good tight ends in this league can do. As a catcher if we focus in on him, we can make him more of a guy that people are talking about just based on throwing him the ball more. So I think we have an excellent tight end with good speed, size. I think we had a combination of as good a tight end, the makings of, as anyone around in Kellen."
Sounds as if Smith expects a Vernon Davis-type leap from Kellen Davis, an unrestricted free agent, in 2012.
While it's an interesting premise laid out by Smith, just remember, Vernon Davis is a former first-round pick (No. 6 overall in 2006) with first-round talent.
Kellen Davis went in the fifth round. Some would argue for good reason.