Chicago Bears: Matt Spaeth
Here's a quick look at the players, some of them even coached by Ditka, who were the number that will be retired on Dec. 9.
Matt Spaeth, TE, 2011-12: Spaeth was brought in from Pittsburgh to shore up pass protection for Jay Cutler. He's returning to Pittsburgh to play for the Steelers in 2013. He will have been the last player to wear the number.
Dustin Lyman, TE, 2000-04: Lyman was a linebacker at Wake Forest who was converted into a tight end by the Bears. He caught 37 passes over five seasons for the Bears.
The Steelers signed the free agent tight end on Monday, reuniting Spaeth with the club that selected him in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. The 29-year-old Spaeth spent his first four seasons with the Steelers before moving on to Chicago, where he caught just 13 passes for 78 yards and three touchdowns in 31 games.
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Several teams expressed interest in Spaeth following his release from the Chicago Bears on Wednesday for financial reasons.
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Tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth, along with defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, will all be set free. Their departures will carve out a modest salary-cap savings, a little over $5 million, but it's still fair to ask how much more the Bears can do this offseason given their financial constraints.
"We are up against the cap," general manager Phil Emery told reporters. "There isn't a lot of wiggle room."
Whether it was genuine or for the consumption of agents, Emery painted a limited picture of the Bears' future action.
Emery: "Are we going to be able to go out and sign in the UFA market a starting guard? No."
As a result, linebacker Nick Roach planned a visit to the Oakland Raiders. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's future remains in limbo.
"We've approached him about coming back," Emery said. "As far as working it out, that's an ongoing process."
As with most things, free agency is a give and take. The Bears have taken two of the best players off the market. As a result, they'll have to give in other areas. That's usually how it works.
Spaeth had a $500,000 roster bonus due on Thursday and was scheduled to count $1,958,334 against the Bears' 2013 salary cap. The Bears will still carry $333,334 worth of dead money but the decision to part company with Spaeth opens up $1.625 million of salary cap space.
Spaeth had the reputation as one of the best all-around blockers on the Bears during this two-year stint in Chicago. Before signing with the Bears, Spaeth had a productive run with the Pittsburgh Steelers where he helped the franchise reach two Super Bowls. A return to Pittsburgh for Spaeth is not out the question, according to a league source.
But the Bears were looking to shed some salary after landing tight end Martellus Bennett and left tackle Jermon Bushrod in the opening hours of free agency. Spaeth and fellow tight end Kellen Davis were obvious candidates to be released after Bennett received a sizeable four-year contract.
While Bennett is the unquestioned starter at tight end, the team envisions a larger role for 2012 fourth-round draft choice Evan Rodriguez, who spent his rookie season lining up at fullback. Rodriguez is expected to get an opportunity to be used more as a downfield threat in the passing game next season.
Just to keep things spicy around here, I kept this discussion about Jermichael Finley's future decidedly within the NFC North.
Finley, of course, said this week he would "walk" from the Green Bay Packers if he was asked to take a pay cut to stay with the team in 2013. Asked in the video by ESPN's Prim Siripipat where Finley could land if the Packers release him, the first team to come to mind was the Chicago Bears.
General manager Phil Emery has said the team needs more out of its tight ends in the passing game, putting starter Kellen Davis and backup Matt Spaeth on notice. Would the Bears target Finley if he were available? He has had some huge games against the Bears in the past, catching three touchdowns in Week 3 of 2011 and totaling 115 receiving yards in Week 3 of 2010, but both of those games came before the arrival of Emery or coach Marc Trestman.
This discussion will be moot if Finley remains with the Packers, but if he's set loose, he would be an intriguing option. It's something to consider over the coming weeks, if nothing else.
It's uncertain whether the new coaching staff views the position as a need in free agency or the upcoming draft, but what's clear is the plan in 2013 to step into the modern age of tight end play.
"The days of the tight end being a down blocker and a flat runner are really gone," said new Bears tight ends coach Andy Bischoff. "If you have that guy, you better get somebody else eventually because those days are really gone."
That's not to say the tenure of any of the club's tight ends is coming to an end anytime soon, but Bischoff made it abundantly clear their roles will change significantly with the implementation of the new offensive scheme by head coach Marc Trestman. In each of the past two seasons Chicago's tight ends ranked at the bottom of the league in receptions.
Perhaps that's about to change.
It would be viewed by many as an upset if Kellen Davis sees the second year of the contract he signed with the Bears last offseason that calls for a base salary of $2.4 million in 2013. Davis just isn't the dependable threat in the passing game the Bears need at tight end. He had far too many drops last year as he struggled to stay upright whenever he had to turn his body to make a catch or run up field.
Further down the depth chart are accomplished blocker Matt Spaeth, developing pass-catcher Kyle Adams, and 2012 fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez, who spent his rookie year lining up roughly 10-12 snaps per game at the hybrid H-Back position. The Bears' reserves are more than capable to handle their respective roles, but the team has been lacking a front-line tight end since the previous regime decided to trade Greg Olsen to Carolina in the summer of 2011.
In a twist of bad luck, there are a handful of talented tight ends slated to be restricted free agents, led by Dennis Pitta, who had a breakout year for the Baltimore Ravens with 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. Pitta also has two postseason touchdown receptions for the AFC champions.
Acquiring restricted free agents is much trickier because teams have a right to match any offer sheet the player signs, and depending on the tender amount, teams can be due compensation in the form of draft picks if they decide not to match the offer.
The Bears are in desperate need of an upgrade and will no doubt investigate and consider all the available options. If they decide to address the issue in free agency, here is a list of some of the projected unrestricted free agent tight ends.
Jeffery will miss his third straight game after he was officially ruled out on Friday due to a fractured right hand.
Linebacker Lance Briggs (toe), tight end Matt Spaeth (ankle) and offensive tackle Jonathan Scott (groin) were listed as probable, but all three had full participation in Friday's workout.
The Titans ruled out starting right guard Leroy Harris (knee) and listed linebacker Will Witherspoon (hamstring) and right tackle David Stewart (knee) as questionable.
Spaeth's skills as a pass protector might not be in high demand on Sunday in Jacksonville since the Jags' defense has recorded only two sacks but on the season. But the Bears could decide to go double tight to exploit the Jags' 30th ranked rushing defense (150.3 yards per game).
"To be honest with you, I don't really care if I get the credit," Spaeth said. "I just want to be out there. I want to play football. My thing since I've been here is to do whatever they ask me to do. Whether that's blocking (Cowboys linebacker) DeMarcus Ware, pass blocking, different things, etc. I do whatever they ask of me and do it to the best of my ability."
Linebackers Brian Urlacher (knee) and Dom DeCicco (groin) are out, along with defensive tackle Stephen Paea (ankle), punter Adam Podlesh (hip flexor), tight end Matt Spaeth, and safeties Brandon Hardin (neck) and Chris Conte (shoulder). Spaeth missed practice Wednesday, and appeared to be wearing a wrap on his leg. The team hasn't disclosed any specifics about Spaeth's injury.
Paea, meanwhile, said he expects to return Sunday to the practice field as the Bears prepare to conclude the preseason next Thursday at Cleveland.
In 2012, there was a notable addition to the welcoming committee. Emboldened by a newly fortified offense and a veteran defense that hasn't gotten old yet, the Bears opened training camp with the highest of expectations.
Overt talk of a Super Bowl run hits you from every angle. You see it on a championship prediction posted outside an elementary school near campus. You hear it chanted from 12,000 fans attending practice. You notice the Bears' normally mild-mannered place-kicker drawing powerful conclusions.
"There's no doubt that this year by far is our best chance to win a Super Bowl," kicker Robbie Gould said on the eve of camp . "We have the talent. Yeah, we do have to earn it on the field, but when it comes to putting the pieces together, this is definitely the year that we have the pieces. … I think everyone understands that this is an opportunity and that we might only get that one chance to make it to the Super Bowl and win it."
Indeed, the long-term future of this team is murky, with linebacker Brian Urlacher entering the final year of his contract and five other starters -- including quarterback Jay Cutler, linebacker Lance Briggs, receiver Devin Hester and Gould -- facing a 2013 expiration. But for the short term, the Bears couldn't be more enthused.
"I'm definitely excited about how stacked we are at each position," cornerback Charles Tillman said.
The pieces are in place, and nothing in the early days of training camp suggests otherwise.
THREE HOT ISSUES
The key to explosive plays -- usually defined as runs of 12 or more yards and passes of at least 16 yards -- is getting those athletes into empty space. Tice has a simple approach to doing that, one he began preaching in the spring and continued during the early days of camp. He affectionately calls it the "Duh offense."
In essence, Tice will give Cutler the responsibility of changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on the "number count" of the defense. If a defense is aligned against the pass, Cutler can call a run. If it is stacked at the line of scrimmage, Cutler will have the ability to switch to a pass. The approach requires the type of balanced personnel the Bears have and produces volume mismatches at the point of attack.
2. Play calling: Tice's experience in developing successful offenses is unquestioned, as is his expertise in matching a scheme with the capability of an offensive line. The one thing Tice hasn't done in 30-plus years in the NFL is be a team's primary playcaller over the course of a season, a task he is preparing for in training camp.
Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will relay the call to Cutler during games, but the calls will originate with Tice.
"It's all about rhythm," Tice said. "It's all about good installation. It's about the right balance and making sure you understand what your opponent is trying to do in certain situations. It'll be fine."
3. Defensive assumptions: Optimism about the Bears has been generated mostly by additions they made to their offense, such as receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Michael Bush and Bates. It has been assumed that the Bears' special teams will maintain its annual strength and that an aging defense has at least one more top-level season in it.
Urlacher (34) looked like his usual self after rehabilitating a knee injury all offseason. Defensive end Julius Peppers (32), Briggs (31) and Tillman (31) all appear to be in excellent shape.
"I don't feel like it's my 10th year," Tillman said. "My body doesn't feel like it. My mind doesn't feel like it. I feel good -- mind, spiritually."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
No one is going to confuse Cutler with Alvin Wong, aka "the happiest man in the world," but Cutler arrived at camp and moved through its first few days with the buoyancy of a man who has been placed squarely in position to succeed.
"This is the most comfortable I think I've been going into a camp with the offense and what we are doing scheme-wise and the talent around me," Cutler said.
Those who know him best agree.
"He looks a lot more comfortable," said receiver Earl Bennett, Cutler's longtime teammate dating to their Vanderbilt days. "He just looks ready to go. He's excited about the new toys he has on offense and the guys surrounding him, and he's just excited about the season."
Arriving at training camp, Cutler said, "was like Christmas."
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Webb and Williams alternated with the first team during the practices I watched, and it's clear that Webb has the physical tools to play the position. Williams, on the other hand, hasn't played left tackle in two years and might be a fallback if Webb can't eliminate the mental and technique mistakes that plagued him in 2011.
"We'll turn the heat on both of them," Tice said. "We want to see who is going to block our good pass-rushers."
Competition isn't a bad thing, but the Bears need a winner to emerge, rather than being left to select the less-damaging option.
- We've discussed the likelihood of Bush serving as the Bears' short-yardage and goal-line back. At 245 pounds, Bush is better suited and has had more career success in that role than starter Matt Forte. But Bush made clear he would rather not be pigeon-holed in that manner. "That's the role I've been stuck with because of my size," Bush said. "If that's what I've got to do, then that's what I've got to do. … No one likes to be a battering ram. It just happens that way." Regardless, it makes too much sense not to give that arrangement a long look.
- Cutler and Marshall arrived for lunch together on the first day of practice. They broke open a new critical-thinking board game at night, which Marshall referred to as "Q." (Cutler won the first two games.) Marshall said the pair's much-discussed friendship is "not always fun." He added: "In any relationship, when you take two people from two different places and you put them together, you butt heads. Because sometimes we try to impose our own wills on each other. But sometimes you understand there is no right and wrong. It's just two different people. I think that's when the relationship gets better. With Jay and I, it's always some work."
- Perhaps their friendship made expectations unreasonably high, but I was surprised by how many miscommunications Cutler and Marshall had in their first few practices. On Day 1, I counted five passes that either hit the ground or were intercepted because Cutler threw one way and Marshall ran another. We found out in the third practice how little that mattered. Cutler and Marshall put on a show in full pads, wowing fans and players who can't remember the last time the Bears had a true No. 1 receiver.
- Tice will undoubtedly use tight ends more in the passing game than predecessor Mike Martz, and the Bears have accumulated an interesting group to deal with. Kellen Davis figures to be the starter, with Matt Spaeth as the top blocker. But it's worth pointing out that rookie Evan Rodriguez, a fourth-round draft pick from Temple, appeared in much better shape than he was reported to be in this spring and seemed to have a knack for turning upfield quickly after the catch. "This game is about explosion," Rodriguez said. (There's that word again.) He added: "Everybody in this league is so fast. You've really got to push to get that five yards, and then after that, it's every inch that matters."
- Rookie safety Brandon Hardin is getting work on all four special teams, including a role as the personal protector on punts. And when free safety Chris Conte briefly left practice Saturday night, it was Hardin who stepped in with the first team. "I'm looking forward to helping the team in that special-teams aspect until I get on the field as a safety," Hardin said.
- Although there is uncertainty at left tackle, the return of 2011 draft choice Gabe Carimi has added a level of stability to the right side. Carimi reported to training camp in excellent condition, having dropped his weight to 308 pounds and lowered his body fat from 26 percent to 19 percent by changing his diet. "The goal was to have more muscle mass," he said.
- The Bears' immediate plans are to use rookie defensive end Shea McClellin as a situational pass- rusher. In that scenario, Israel Idonije would hold a starting spot opposite Peppers. I didn't see any examples of it early in camp, but you wonder if the Bears would be tempted to use Idonije as an inside pass-rusher, with McClellin on the edge, on passing downs. Another candidate to be an inside pass-rusher is newcomer Brian Price.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The running joke on the sideline the first day of practice was that Jay Cutler kept misfiring passes to Kellen Davis because the quarterback hadn't been asked to throw the ball to a tight end in two years.
The hope is the offseason switch of offensive coordinators will lead to tight ends once again being contributors in the passing game, perhaps in a similar fashion to the way Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen were used when they combined to catch an average of 86 balls per year from 2007-09.
But with skill position players such as Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester already slated to be a large part of the offense, it might be unrealistic to expect huge numbers from the tight ends for the simple reason that quarterback Jay Cutler now has a variety of options on every single play.
"I think we will [be more featured in the passing game]," Bears tight end Matt Spaeth told ESPN 1000's 'Training Camp Tonight'. "It's tough to say early in training camp. We're still trying to find our identity as an offense and find out what kind of offense we are going to be. I think the tight end room, the group as a whole, is really good with a lot of good guys . Guys that can do different things.'
"One thing about our offense, we have a lot of different weapons, so there are never enough passes to go around for everybody because we have a lot of playmakers at receiver, tight end and running back. Nobody is ever really happy in the NFL because everybody wants the ball more but there are only so many balls to go around."
Taking that all into account, Davis should still top the 18 receptions for 206 yards he posted last year as should Spaeth who came to Chicago was the reputation as an accomplished blocker but flashed good hands and ran solid routes during offseason workouts.
The wildcard could be fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez who's made noticeable strides since he struggled a the initial rookie minicamp a few weeks after the draft. Second-year man Kyle Adams hauled in his share of impressive catches during OTAs and minicamp and is once again fighting to earn a spot on the Bears final 53-man roster.
The Chicago Bears wrapped up their three-day minicamp Thursday at Halas Hall, and here are some quick observations from the final session:
• Charles Tillman demonstrated his takeaway skills for the second consecutive day against the same victim: tight end Kellen Davis. Tillman pulled a ball out of Davis' hands and sprinted towards the end zone just as a Jay Cutler's pass hit the tight end’s chest during team drills. More impressive is that as Cutler barked out the cadence, Tillman told the defense exactly where the ball would be going on the play.
• He might not make the Bears' roster or any other NFL roster for that matter, but we’re giving the Thomas Jones “Big Guns” award to tight end Draylen Ross. Ross originally signed with the Bears in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of North Texas, and faces long odds to make the team. Based the size of his arms, perhaps he’s got a future in body building if football doesn’t work out.
• Rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery continued his inactivity in the final day of minicamp. Limited over the last two workouts with a lower-leg injury, Jeffery didn’t participate in any portions of the Thursday session at Halas Hall. Jeffery’s injury isn’t believed to be serious.
• Veteran tight end Matt Spaeth spent Thursday rehabilitating his sore hamstring during the workout with athletic trainer Bobby Slater.
• With Spaeth out, the Bears worked Kyle Adams and Davis with the starters in double tight end sets.
• Edwin Williams took reps with the second team at center.
• Rookie Greg McCoy took reps with the second team opposite veteran Kelvin Hayden. McCoy hasn’t necessarily moved up the depth chart. It’s likely the rookie received those repetitions because the team held out Wilhite.
• The Bears worked out two more tryout players on the final day of minicamp. The club brought in a pair of cornerbacks in Jeremy Ware, a former Michigan State standout drafted in the seventh round of 2010 by the Oakland Raiders, and Cornelius Brown, who signed with the Bears in 2010 as a rookie free agent.