NFC North: Kellen Davis
One of the Bears’ most important offseason acquisitions, Bennett was kept under wraps in the preseason after signing a four-year, $20.4 million deal that contains $9.215 million in guarantees. Bennett caught just one pass for 16 yards in three preseason games as the majority of quarterback Jay Cutler's passes went in the directions of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
It’s silly to overreact to anything, good or bad, in the preseason, but the Bears didn’t invest that kind of money at the tight end for Bennett to be a spectator when the games count -- especially not after the club had such poor results at the position last season from ex-starter Kellen Davis, who managed a mere 19 receptions for 229 yards.
How it unfolds for Bennett against a talented Cincinnati Bengals’ defense remains a question mark, but Cutler should have no trouble finding the starting tight end in the huddle or on the sideline.
“I’m always there to reassure Jay and make sure he’s calling the right play,” Bennett said. “So I’m like his backup guy. Like, ‘I don’t think that’s to the right.’ Or the ball’s on the left hash. We’ve got to flip the play. So I’m there.
"I’m like Jiminy Cricket in his ear, making sure the tight ends are always the quarterback’s best friend. So I stay in all of the quarterback meetings and the offensive line meetings. So I pretty much know what everyone is doing. So I try to help people out as much as possible. But sometimes there are so many calls, I tell a receiver, you got this, I got this. Like I say, I over communicate in the huddle. So I probably talk the most.”
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.
A few snippets of the conversation:
On Bushrod's arrival
On how important it is to get Urlacher back:
JC: "It would be nice. We're pretty up against the cap a little it. We'll see what happens. It's hard to lose a guy like that, on the field, off the field, just his presence. A Hall of Fame player. I think it's important. Everyone wants to get him back. It's just business. It's a shame that things sometimes come down to that. Hopefully it works out. We'll have to wait and see."
How different would the locker room be?
JC: "I've been with teams where you lose players like that. Cornerstones of the franchise. It happens. Other guys have to step up. We've played some games in the past without him. His presence has always been there. If it doesn't work out, and we have to part ways with him, then some other guys have to step up and we'll find some other leaders along the way."
Do you think you'll enter the season without a new contract?
JC: "Yeah, I think that's probably the way we're headed. We haven't really talked about anything. We're upgrading at certain positions. I don't think we are really in position to do my deal. [General manager Phil Emery] has got a plan worked out, so we'll have to see what happens. I'm perfectly comfortable in the position I'm in. If we go into it in just this last year, then so be it. I'll play it out and we'll see what happens at the end of the year."
For what it's worth, and despite a brief Twitter discussion we had Wednesday, I didn't find Cutler's response on Urlacher to be cold or even ambivalent. Cutler is a veteran player who understands it is far from inconceivable that Urlacher might not be back with the Bears. As jarring as that would be for fans and perhaps some teammates, Hall of Fame-type careers end every year in the NFL. Cutler's response reflected reality: If Urlacher leaves, other players will have to step up into the void.
Bears note: To no one's surprise, the Bears released tight end Kellen Davis after Bennett signed a four-year, $20 million contract to replace him. Davis' departure will save the Bears $2.5 million in salary cap space.
Bennett broke through with a career year after moving from the Dallas Cowboys to the New York Giants last season, catching 55 passes for 626 yards and five touchdowns. To be fair, he also tied for the NFL's 11th-worst drop percentage (7.8) among qualified receivers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, an issue to consider as the Bears look to re-incorporate the tight end into their passing offense.
With that said, Bennett is a clear upgrade over 2012 starter Kellen Davis and gives the Bears a legitimate threat at the position for the first time since they traded away Greg Olsen in 2011. As a so-called "complete" tight end, Bennett can be on the field no matter what type of play the Bears have called.
It's not immediately clear what will happen to Davis and backup Matt Spaeth. But last season, Bears tight ends finished last in the NFL with a combined 33 receptions. General manager Phil Emery made it clear in January that upgrading the position was an offseason priority. Consider it all but done.
Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.
Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.
Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.
Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.
Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.
Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.
Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?
Chicago Bears: It's unclear how much interest the Bears would have, but a tight end like Jared Cook would make sense. General manager Phil Emery is on record saying that he wants better production in the passing game from the tight-end position, and Cook is a smooth receiver. He would be a big upgrade from Kellen Davis in that regard, and new coach Marc Trestman could find plenty of different ways to line Cook up and move him around.
Detroit Lions: I'm all for the Lions pursuing running back Reggie Bush, who would provide a speedy alternative to Mikel Leshoure and also re-open a level of the passing game that has been missing without Jahvid Best. But the Lions' lack of reliable depth at safety is no less important, especially when you remember that general manager Martin Mayhew wants more playmakers in the back end. The Lions might not have the salary-cap space to sign Dashon Goldson, but fellow free agents William Moore and Glover Quin would help matters.
Green Bay Packers: Running back Steven Jackson has plenty of wear on his 29-year-old body -- nearly 2,800 touches. But a move to Green Bay would set up a satisfying conclusion to his career. The Packers will never move too far away from their pass-first philosophy, but part of that approach is the result of never having a big running back like Jackson. He could capitalize on defenses focused on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game and provide a new level of physicality to this offense.
Minnesota Vikings: There is plenty of clamor for the Vikings to make a run at speedster Mike Wallace. That's one option. From a bigger-picture perspective, a more inclusive approach would have the Vikings targeting a second-tier free agent -- such as Brandon Gibson -- re-signing Percy Harvin to a multi-year contract and focusing on a top-end speedster in the draft. Gibson has outside skills and wouldn't threaten the Vikings' salary-cap structure at the position.
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.
Chicago Bears: Quarterback Jay Cutler (concussion) practiced Friday for the second consecutive day but is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings, mostly because he must be cleared Saturday by an independent neurologist. Coach Lovie Smith has been optimistic all week about Cutler's chances to be cleared, so the guess is Cutler will start. Receiver Alshon Jeffery won't play because of a knee injury, and the only other player who might not be available is tight end Kellen Davis (ankle).
Green Bay Packers: The Packers ruled out linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), who did not practice at all this week, for Sunday night's game against the New York Giants. Linebacker Terrell Manning (shoulder), defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone), cornerback Sam Shields (shin) are also out. Receiver Greg Jennings (hamstring) was elevated to questionable, but the guess is that he'll need one more week before returning to action. Tight end Andrew Quarless (knee), who is questionable, is the only other player who might not be available.
Minnesota Vikings: Receiver Percy Harvin tried to give it a go in practice Friday but his ankle is still sore. He is listed as doubtful and almost certainly won't play Sunday against the Bears. Guard Charlie Johnson (toe) returned to practice Friday and should be ready for the game. Nose tackle Letroy Guion (foot) is questionable.
Our friends at ESPN Stats & Information have posted a statistic- and history-based spin on the discussion we've been having on Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson's competition with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.
You can read the entire post here. John McTigue offered these points among others in Peterson's favor:
Peterson's average of 112.8 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt have been carried out over a full season only four times in NFL history. On three of those occasions, the running back won the NFL's MVP award. It's a pretty elite list: Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Barry Sanders.
Peterson is averaging 6.3 yards per carry when defenders put at least eight men in the box. No NFL running back has faced such fronts more often than him.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher appears to consider the concussion issue as some do global warming, writes Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: "open to interpretation."
- Bears tight end Kellen Davis is eager to put aside his poor performance last Sunday night, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
- Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub on punter Adam Podlesh, via Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com: "Podlesh is fine. He understands this a performance-based business that we are in, and we brought guys in just to see where they are at right now."
- Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "The Lions are the only NFL team without a run of at least 20 yards this year, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said that might have something to do with how defenses are playing Calvin Johnson."
- The Lions are still trying to find an offensive balance, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
- Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on his game last Sunday against the Vikings, via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com: "Honestly, no performance is really good enough when you're not winning. I may have played well individually, but it wasn't enough as a team effort, and I didn't do enough to help my other teammates so we could win the game."
- It doesn't appear that Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields will play Sunday against the Lions, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Is Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot a head coach in waiting? Quarterback Aaron Rodgers thinks so, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
- Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "James Starks probably has surpassed Alex Green as the Green Bay Packers’ primary running back, at least until Cedric Benson is back from a sprained foot."
I tossed out a few of ESPN Stats and Information's raw numbers Wednesday on Twitter and was quickly deluged with individual questions and requests for more context. So I'll endeavor to pass along all relevant information in this post.
Drops are a subjective statistic, and my experience with ESPN Stats & Information is that an incompletion has to be an obvious, clear drop for it to be recorded as one. As a result, you might see other statistical services hand out more drops. But to me it's all relative, as long as the same standards are applied to each team, we can get a clear perspective on who is dropping lots of passes and who isn't.
As the chart shows, the Green Bay Packers have the most drops in the NFC North (19) as well as the highest drop percentage (6.6). The 19 drops is tied for the NFL lead, but as we discussed on Twitter, percentage is more important because it adjusts for teams who throw more often. It stand to reason that a team like the Packers would have more drops than the Bears, who have thrown 155 fewer targeted passes over the first eight weeks of the season.
For the Packers, receiver Jordy Nelson has been debited with five drops. Tight end Jermichael Finley has four, receiver Randall Cobb has three and receiver Donald Driver has two (on nine targeted passes). No one else has more than one drop, and receiver James Jones -- who has some of the most notorious drops in recent Packers history -- has not been debited with any in 2012.
Below are some other notable drop figures in the NFC North. For reference, the NFL leader in drops based on this standard are Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who have seven drops apiece.
- Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has four drops on 79 targeted passes.
- Bears receiver Devin Hester and tight end Kellen Davis have three drops apiece on a combined total of 40 targeted passes.
- Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew has four drops on 55 targeted passes.
- Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has three drops, including two last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, on 73 targeted passes.
- The Vikings' seven drops are split among tight end Kyle Rudolph (three) and running backs Toby Gerhart (two) and Adrian Peterson (two). That means receiver Percy Harvin doesn't have a drop among the 76 targeted passes he's seen.
Urlacher has 20 total tackles in five games and has batted away two passes while playing 267 of a possible 325 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. To his credit, Urlacher acknowledged that he hasn't been himself during an interview Thursday with ESPN 1000.
"I've been lucky because our defense has been playing so well," Urlacher said. "I haven't done anything, and look what we've done so far. ... I have to think those plays are going to start coming my way, and when I need to make them, I will. I was put in position to make a lot of plays, some of them I didn't make.
Urlacher added that his knee "feels different" but said: "[T]here's no doubt in my mind I'll be able to be an impact player again. I just have to keep getting better."
That's a relatively stark admission from a proud player who will have to grind through at least 11 more games in his current condition. It's worth continued monitoring, but to this point, there is no way to argue that Urlacher's reduced playmaking has hurt the Bears. Other players have most definitely stepped up.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Bears tight end Kellen Davis is organizing a fundraiser for the family of a Bears fan who was murdered last week in Jacksonville, Fla. Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com has more.
- The staff of ESPNChicago.com considers four issues, including the way the Bears are using receiver Devin Hester, in a bye week edition of "Four Downs."
- Police are investigating a two-car accident involving Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh from Thursday morning. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press has details.
- The Lions appear encouraged with the progress of safety Louis Delmas since he returned to practice last week, according to Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com.
- Calvin Johnson wants the Lions' receivers to get tougher, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
- Green Bay Packers running back James Starks, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "[I'm] not completely healthy, but I've felt a lot better than where I was. Opportunities don't come much, so I've got to make the most out of every opportunity I receive. I'm sure I will."
- There have been a number of notable midseason turnarounds for the Packers under coach Mike McCarthy, notes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Injuries continue to be an issue for the Packers' tight ends, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- The Minnesota Vikings have had preliminary talks with right tackle Phil Loadholt on a contract extension, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
- Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson considers himself and Vikings receiver Percy Harvin to be the two best players in the NFL, according to Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune.
- The Vikings will allow defensive lineman Everson Griffen to be away from the team as long as he needs as he grieves the loss of his mother, who died unexpectedly Wednesday in Minnesota. Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has more details.
- Based on the final score, it's hard to believe the Bears needed a nine-minute drive at the start of the second half just to take a 6-3 lead. It also might be hard to digest that after a 501-yard offensive performance, the Bears' highest total since 1989, the defense deserves top credit for this victory. The floodgates didn't open until cornerback Charles Tillman returned an interception for a touchdown on the Jaguars' ensuing possession. Only then did the offense get in gear. In the end, the Jaguars managed just 189 total yards and 10 first downs. In the Bears' current three-game winning streak, the defense has actually scored more touchdowns (six) than the offense (five). The Bears' defense leads the NFL with 17 takeaways, is tied for the lead with 18 sacks and is the first in league history to return five interceptions for touchdowns in the first five games of a season. No matter what the stat sheet says or media hype suggests, the Bears continue to be a team led by its defense.ESPN.com
- With that said, the Bears should be encouraged by what they've seen from receiver Brandon Marshall over the past two weeks. Here are the numbers: 19 receptions, 282 yards and two touchdowns. Sunday, quarterback Jay Cutler targeted him 17 times. No other pass-catcher had more than four passes thrown his way. Much of Marshall's success has come once the Bears are already ahead, but let's not diminish the value of putting teams away. It's not surprising that his one-on-one opportunities have come more often with the Bears in the lead and opponents lineup up to stop the run. Here's the next step for the Marshall-Cutler duo: Early success to stake the Bears to a first-quarter lead.
- All of a sudden, the Bears have a tackle under scrutiny -- and it's not J'Marcus Webb. Right tackle Gabe Carimi, who many thought was the best offensive lineman on the team entering the season, had a rough go of it Sunday. A holding penalty negated as 12-yard pass to tight end Kellen Davis, and Carimi committed consecutive false starts in the third quarter. That brought Carimi's penalty total this season to six in five games. He's been flagged for three false starts, twice for holding and once for unnecessary roughness. The bye will come at a good time for Carimi to reflect on the early portions of the season and presumably make the necessary adjustments.
Where did Corey Wootton come from? I know his background, of course. He was a highly-regarded pass-rusher at Northwestern whose production tailed off while recovering from a knee injury, and his first two NFL seasons after the Bears made him a fourth-round draft choice were almost totally vacant. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin in the first round this year, and I wrote off Wootton as a talented player who couldn't stay on the field and was destined to play elsewhere in 2012. Instead, he has made a significant impact in limited playing time. He played 22 snaps Sunday and had two sacks, bringing his season total to 3.5 along with two forced fumbles. He's reached those totals while playing on about 40 percent of the Bears' defensive snaps. Wootton has my vote for perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season in the NFC North.
Remember, "total penalties" includes those that were declined or offset. I think that provides a fuller reckoning of each team's situation.
The Vikings' division-leading 17 penalties includes five against their offensive linemen, including two apiece for left guard Charlie Johnson and right tackle Phil Loadholt. The Chicago Bears' offensive line has also taken five penalties, including three by right tackle Gabe Carimi: A hold, a false start and an unnecessary roughness. Bears tight end Kellen Davis has also been whistled twice. The Green Bay Packers' line has matched the Vikings' and Bears'; their total of five includes two by guard T.J. Lang and two by right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Remember, if there are any specific issues or calls you want me to explore, you can always ship them my way via the mailbag, Twitter or Facebook.
Three years ago, there was so much excitement about NFC North tight ends that we monitored their progress regularly throughout the season. For different reasons, we've reached a similar point in 2012.
I'm sure fans of each NFC North team has had some angst about their top tight end this season, but the bottom line is that all four have scored a touchdown during the first two weeks of the season. I've set up a chart in this post to help us monitor their usage, performance and efficiency over time, and in this post I've offered some context and specifics in the Blogger Blitz video.
Drops are based on ESPN Stats & Information's evaluation and standards. They're an unofficial statistic and it's quite possible you'll see different numbers from other evaluators. It's a judgment call.
When someone has asked for a surprise producer this summer, my go-to answer has been Chicago Bears rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery -- whom general manager Phil Emery has referred to as the best red zone receiver of the 2012 draft. Jeffery looked smooth during training camp practices, caught eight passes for 106 yards in the preseason and appears set to capitalize when attention is paid elsewhere on the Bears' talented offense.
But don't take it from me. During an appearance Tuesday on ESPN 1000, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said Jeffery "is better than we expected" and expressed about as much confidence in a rookie receiver that you'll hear from a quarterback in Week 1.
"We knew he had great hands," Cutler said. "That was the thing on him, he catches everything, and he did. He's a natural catcher. Big net. You can put it anywhere and he's going to snag it. I think the way he's able to get out of routes, the way he's naturally able to beat press. …
"I think his speed is probably a little bit underrated. He can go get the ball. His jumping ability, being able to time balls and go up and get balls, that's just a natural attribute. A lot of guys have trouble attacking that high point and he does it really well."
Production for rookie wide receivers can be unpredictable, especially in the early part of the season. And don't forget Jeffery will have to share one ball with Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Matt Forte, Michael Bush and even tight end Kellen Davis. But you asked for a surprise producer, and I'm glad I'm not the only one mentioning Alshon Jeffery.