- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last year’s fourth-round pick, fullback/tight end Evan Rodriguez, arrived at Marshall’s brand-new Fit Speed Inc. training facility in Weston, Fla., in mid-February to participate in workouts with his Bears teammates and other NFL players recruited by Marshall, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery.
Rodriguez’s decision to train in that environment seems like a wise one.
This figures to be an important season for Rodriguez’s development, after he lined up primarily at fullback his rookie year. Touted as a pass-catcher by Bears general manager Phil Emery on draft day, Rodriguez managed to haul in only four receptions for 21 yards in 12 games (five starts) in limited playing time. The Bears used Rodriguez an average of 19 offensive snaps per game, with a high of 32 snaps (52 percent of all snaps) in the Bears’ Week 13 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Rodriguez showed NFL scouts he had the ability to be a vertical threat during his final year at the collegiate level, when he caught 35 balls for 479 yards and two touchdowns.
But ex-Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice never incorporated Rodriguez into that aspect of the offense. It also didn’t help matters that Rodriguez suffered a knee injury in Week 3 that essentially sidelined him for five games.
Even after Rodriguez returned to the field, he was barely incorporated into the offense, despite the Bears’ glaring need for somebody other than Marshall to be targeted in the passing game.
Safe to say Emery expects the new coaching staff to do a better job utilizing Rodriguez’s all-around skills.
“I think [Evan] is going to be used in a variety of roles until we find the right role for him,” Emery said at the NFL combine. “Obviously, he finished the year as a fullback. We felt by the end of the year he had done a good job in there, but he also has other skills and we are going to work through OTAs [organized team activities] and camp to bring that out and find that right role. Whether it’s more at F [tight end], or detached, or 'move' fullback, or 'move' F or as a fullback, he’ll have an opportunity to display all his skills to our new staff.”
Even if the Bears pursue a tight end in free agency, as many expect, Rodriguez is likely to be given an opportunity to stretch the field when the club begins its offseason work next month. What Rodriguez does with the opportunity is up to him, but Emery drafted him in the fourth round for a reason.
NFL organizations that are able to sustain success usually have several things in common, one of them being that their draft picks produce, which saves them the hassle of finding more expensive replacements in free agency. While the Bears certainly need to hit on the majority of their 2013 draft picks and sign a handful of quality free agents, former draft choices such as Rodriguez, Jeffery, defensive end Shea McClellin and defensive tackle Stephen Paea need to elevate their game to the next level.
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery isn’t the only member of the Chicago Bears’ 2012 draft class who is spending his offseason training with Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall in South Florida.