This is the fourth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
Surely at some point in the in the playoffs the Chicago Bears front office watched the exploits of tight ends around the league, and wondered why under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz and the team basically eliminated the position, reducing it to nothing more than an extra offensive lineman.
Five of the tight ends featured in the postseason (New Orlean's Jimmy Graham, New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley and San Francisco's Vernon Davis) individually produced more in terms of receptions and yardage than every tight end on the Bears roster combined. In fact, of all the teams that advanced to the postseason, only one starting tight end -- Denver's Daniel Fells -- generated fewer catches (19) than Chicago tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth (25), but matched their yardage (256).
Of the 12 starting tight ends on playoff teams just two -- Fells and Jake Ballard of the New York Giants -- caught fewer than 51 passes. To really put that into perspective, consider the fact that Chicago's leading receiver -- running back Matt Forte -- finished the season with 52 receptions.
Ten tight ends on playoff teams eclipsed Forte's numbers, and four of them -- Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Atlanta's Tony Gonzales, Graham and Gronkowski -- finished 2011 with at least 80 catches. A Bears player hasn't accomplished that feat since 2002, when receiver Marty Booker finished with 97 receptions.
So despite the rosy outlook from the coaching staff regarding the team's tight ends, clearly the Bears need more from the position, especially in the red zone where the Bears scored 20 touchdowns in 38 drives inside an opponent's 20 in 2011.
"We have an excellent tight end," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Davis, who is an unrestricted free agent. "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. I think we had a combination of as good a tight end -- the makings of -- as anyone around in Kellen."
THE CURRENT ROSTER
Kellen Davis: Despite pedestrian statistics, Davis led the Bears with five touchdown receptions, finishing his fourth season with 18 catches for 206 yards. An unrestricted free agent, Davis might be offered a minimal deal to re-sign. But if the Bears -- under new GM Emery -- decide to upgrade at the position, they could decide to let Davis sign elsewhere. Davis has flashed ability as both a blocker and receiver over the past two seasons, but lacks consistency in both areas.
Matt Spaeth: Brought in as a blocking tight end, Spaeth played 15 games, catching seven passes for 50 yards. The Bears signed Spaeth to a three-year contract last year in free agency, and -- counting his bonuses -- he basically earned more than $285,000 per catch last season. With Spaeth to receive $1.775 million in base salary for 2012, the front office may decide that’s too much to pay for a one-dimensional tight end. In fact, the Bears could use that money to try to lure back Davis.
Kyle Adams: Contributed primarily as a special teamer for eight games as a rookie, before a torn hamstring landed Adams on the injured reserve. One of just five undrafted free agents to make last year’s team, Adams also showed promise as a developmental tight end that might thrive with an NFL offseason under his belt that might open up the door to a strong training camp.
Andre Smith: Spent the first eight games on the practice squad before the Bears promoted him to the 53-man roster after Adams was placed on injured reserve. Although he was on the active roster, the Bears placed Smith on their inactive list in each of the last eight games. Like Adams, Smith is another developmental prospect that displays promising upside.
Draylen Ross: Spent time briefly with the Bears during 2011 training camp, and was signed to the practice squad when Adams was placed on IR and Smith was promoted to the active roster. If Ross makes it to training camp, he’ll have a difficult time sticking.
Bears free agents: Davis
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers, unrestricted
WHY BENNETT MIGHT MAKE SENSE
There's no way the Packers let Finley see the open market, and Davis' 2011 drug suspension might be too much of a red flag for the Bears under new GM Phil Emery. Bennett (6 foot 6, 270 pounds) makes for an interesting prospect for a variety of reasons. According to a Cowboys source, Bennett was the team's best blocker, is immensely athletic and possesses solid hands. But he's been plagued by immaturity. Like quarterback Jay Cutler, Bennett has often been criticized for his body language.
Bennett, who will be 25 in March, might be able to thrive in Chicago because of the Bears' established group of leaders, and the fact Halas Hall isn’t the circus atmosphere the tight end has become accustomed to in Dallas. With the Bears, Bennett would take a lead role, as opposed to being merely a backup to Jason Witten. Throw in a strong-minded coach in Smith, a top quarterback in Cutler, and an established group of leaders in the locker room, and Chicago might be the place where Bennett can finally flourish.
Believe it or not, Bennett’s skill set is very similar to those of Pettigrew and Finley.