NFL Nation: Martellus Bennett

The awkward part of New York Giants GM Jerry Reese's pre-draft news conference Thursday came when a reporter asked him about tight end. The exchange went like this:
Q: Historically, this team has relied on the tight end quite a bit. Would you be comfortable moving forward with the guys you have on your roster right now?

Reese: Historically we've relied on our tight end?

Q: Well, they've had a prominent role.

Reese: Really?

Q: I seem to remember tight ends catching important passes.

Reese: Yeah, well, we think we've got some tight ends that can catch some important passes. But "prominent role"? We want all of our positions to be prominent roles. I'm not sure if our tight ends have had prominent roles in the past. But we want a competent tight end. We think we've got a couple of young tight ends who have been here for a couple of years who we want to develop, and we'll continue to look as we move forward.
[+] EnlargeBrandon Myers
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsIn his one season with the Giants, Brandon Myers caught 47 passes for 522 yards.
I have been on the other end of that exchange in the past. I've been the one who asked Reese a question that posited a certain level of significance for the tight end position and had him reject the premise. Obviously, this does not show Reese at his most polite, but he views this idea that the Giants' offense has relied on a tight end as an especially irksome misperception. And the numbers support his side of it:

  • Brandon Myers' 47 receptions in 2013 were the second-most in a single season by a Giants tight end since Jeremy Shockey caught 57 passes in 2007.
  • Since 2007, the Giants have employed four different starting tight ends -- Kevin Boss from 2008-10, Jake Ballard in 2011, Martellus Bennett in 2012 and Myers last year.
  • Over that six-year stretch, the Giants' leading tight end has averaged 42 receptions for 539 yards and five touchdowns per year, with Bennett's 55 catches and 626 yards in 2012 and Boss' six touchdowns in 2008 the high-water marks in those categories.

Reese is not shy about telling people he thinks he can find a tight end who can catch 42 passes every year, and this is the basis on which he rejects a characterization such as "prominent role." Yes, he could be nicer about making the point, but the Giants' offense has not, in point of fact, relied on the tight end. Shockey was an exceptional case -- an exceptional talent the Giants deemed worthy of a first-round pick. And Bennett's athleticism allowed them to use him a bit more than they've used other guys after they were able to get him on the cheap prior to the 2012 season.

But the thing to remember about Bennett and Shockey is that both were excellent and willing blockers at the position. Bennett's as good a run-blocking tight end as there is in the NFL right now, and the Giants had him on the field a lot for that reason. That his size and speed enabled him to be a slightly bigger factor in the passing game than some of his predecessors were was a bonus, and the Giants were fortunate that he wasn't in demand that year due to the perception that he was a huge disappointment in Dallas. Once he played well for them, he parlayed that into a big free-agent deal with the Bears, and the Giants made no effort to spend to keep him.

So the point to be taken from this is not that the Giants don't like the tight end position but that it's not a position on which they feel compelled to spend major resources. Other than that 2002 first-round pick they spent on Shockey, they've consistently sought cheap solutions at tight end, viewing whoever plays it as replaceable from year to year. They want guys who can block, and if those guys can catch the ball, so much the better.

For that reason, it's easy to convince yourself that they won't be taking North Carolina's Eric Ebron with the No. 12 pick in the first round next week. Ebron may be an exceptional talent as a receiver, and the tight end position leaguewide may have evolved to the point where it's worth spending a No. 12 overall pick to get one who can be a difference-maker in the passing game. But Reese insisted Thursday that the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has not changed the way the Giants evaluate offensive players. And while Shockey was the No. 14 overall pick in that 2002 draft, it's vital to remember that Shockey was a good blocker in addition to a great pass-catcher. Ebron is a pass-catcher only. He'd be a liability as a blocker. So the comparison doesn't necessarily fit.

The Giants could find a tight end such as Jace Amaro or Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round if they really feel they need one, but it's possible they don't feel that way. They have 2012 fourth-round pick Adrien Robinson still on the roster and have been eager for some time to see him on the field more. They resisted putting Robinson on injured reserve all last year because they believed he had something to offer if he ever got healthy (which he finally did, only to injure himself again on the opening kickoff of the Week 16 game in Detroit). They signed blocking tight end Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells for depth at the position, and Larry Donnell has been a strong enough special-teams performer to earn more practice reps and show what he can do. That's the group Reese has, and he swears he doesn't feel the need to upgrade it in the draft. If their pick comes around and the best player still on their board plays tight end, sure, they could take him. But Reese isn't hunting for some huge solution at the position next week.

The question is whether he's right. I personally think the Giants would benefit from having a more permanent solution at this position than they've employed over the past four years. I think the way the league is going, it's more important than it used to be to have a big-time weapon at that position who can split out wide and bust matchups in the secondary. But I don't run the Giants. Jerry Reese does. And he and the Giants do things their way, and they believe in it. You can respect someone's conviction even if your opinion differs from theirs. Reese thinks he's OK at tight end -- or at least that he will be. And it's clear when he's asked about it that he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett appeared on NFL Network on Monday with his brother Michael Bennett, a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks and one of the most sought after commodities in free agency.

Michael Bennett
Martellus Bennett
Despite a hard sales pitch from Martellus Bennett, the elder sibling never gave a strong indication regarding his potential landing spot. The Bears are reportedly expected to sign Michael Bennett once free agency officially begins at 3 p.m. CT Tuesday, but a league source familiar with the negotiations said the defensive end hasn't yet made a decision. [Update: The Seahawks signed Michael Bennett to a multiyear contract extension Monday afternoon.]

"You've just got to stay tuned, man, like a suspenseful movie," Michael Bennett said. "I've got to leave it suspenseful right now."

That didn't stop Martellus Bennett, who turned 27 on Monday, from laying out a strong case for Michael to sign with the Bears. Martellus Bennett also recently tweeted a picture of a 12-year-old Michael Bennett wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey.

"The No. 1 thing is family. You're going to get paid wherever you get paid," Martellus Bennett said. "... So if the contract is not the number that you want, you've got to think about the market and off the field."

Martellus Bennett joked that the duo could do commercials and perhaps a reality show. Both are currently sporting unkempt beards.

"We could do Doublemint commercials. Look at Duck Dynasty. Talk about the black Duck Dynasty right now. Me and you bro," said Martellus Bennett, continuing the pitch to his elder sibling. "There's just a lot of opportunity. Chicago [has] the best fans, unique city, great opportunities business wise, which I know there are a lot of things you want to do off the field after football. And none of those things are tech or coffee. [In] Seattle, that's what they're offering you. So come on down to Chicago, man."

Michael Bennett admitted that his brother put together "a great argument" and made "some great points" but refused to give any indication as to where he would be signing Tuesday once the new league year begins.

Michael Bennett said he is fielding calls from several suitors.

"I've got to leave it suspenseful for the next couple of hours and go home and make the right decision. It's really hard though," he said. "So many things play a key into the decision of your future, where you're gonna play. But I love my brother. He's one of the best tight ends in the league. So it's gonna be hard."

Martellus Bennett obviously isn't making things any easier as he continued to pitch joining the Bears.

"The biggest thing right now is usually when you go from a team to another team, you might have a friend there. You may just be jumping into the water. But here, there's a bridge. Your brother is a bridge," Martellus Bennett said. "Chicago, they love the Bennetts, bro. So to have two Bennetts, well, it would be a third because of Earl. But the Bennett and Bennett, we might as well be tough, smart lawyers. We probably could do back insurance. You get in a car accident, come on down to Bennett and Bennett. Got in a wreck, need a check? Call Bennett and Bennett. We can do whatever we want to do."

Martellus Bennett also explained the picture he posted on Twitter featuring Michael Bennett on a phone wearing a Michael Jordan jersey.

"Somewhere down the timeline of Michael Bennett Jr. history, Chicago was on his mind. It's in you. It's not something new," Martellus Bennett told Michael. "It's something that's been there. It's been there for a long time from the Bulls jersey. You buy Jordans all the time. I'm just saying the Chicago Bulls jersey is cool. We could get you one with Bennett on the back, No. 23, 72, whatever you want to get. We can get it done."
Money: Signed a four-year contract worth $20.4 million with $9.215 million in guarantees ($4.5 million signing bonus). Bennett will earn a total of $4.9 million in 2014 and is scheduled to count $6.025 million against the Bears’ salary cap in the second year of his deal.

Stats: Bennett finished the season with career highs in receptions (65) and receiving yards (759) and tied his all-time best mark with five touchdown catches. Bennett’s 65 grabs ranked fourth on the Bears and No. 8 in the NFL amongst tight ends. His 759 receiving yards were the third highest total on the team and ninth amongst tight ends in the league.

Bennett
2013 role: Bennett spent the entire year as the unquestioned No. 1 tight end on the Bears’ roster. He technically started 15 games, but Bennett played an extremely high number of snaps every single week. The tight end proved to be the Bears' third or fourth option on offense, sharing touches with receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tailback Matt Forte. Bennett lived up to almost all of the expectations placed upon him after the Bears moved so quickly to sign him last offseason.

The good: Compared to the Bears’ 2012 starting tight end, Kellen Davis, Bennett looked like Kellen Winslow Sr. in his prime. Bennett immediately turned tight end from a position of severe weakness to a position of strength. The six-year veteran began the year with a bang when he hauled in three touchdown passes over the first two games, including the game-winner versus the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2. He displayed a willingness to fight for additional yards after receptions, even if he occasionally landed on his head as a result of the going to extra mile. Bennett’s quirky and eclectic personality played well with the media. He was never a distraction and seemed to be extremely happy and comfortable in his new surroundings.

The bad: Bennett never missed a game or complained about injuries, but he did fight through a variety of physical ailments that possibly curtailed his effectiveness to a small degree. There were weeks in the season when Bennett failed to factor much into the offense. He had five games where he caught two or fewer passes, but the Bears also had a variety of weapons for the quarterback to choose from.

2014 outlook: Bennett figures to pick up where he left off in 2013. Expect the tight end to again be one of the top four options on offense from week to week. Bennett would benefit from a stronger No. 2 tight end behind him on the depth chart. Perhaps that is an area the Bears address in the draft or in free agency. At 26 years old, Bennett, who turns 27 in March, should be entering the most productive phase of his NFL career.

Four Downs: Did Broncos win Cutler trade?

January, 31, 2014
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Jay CutlerMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler has one trip to the playoffs in five seasons with the Bears.
It wasn't exactly the Herschel Walker trade that created the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty, but the steep price the Bears paid for Jay Cutler set the Broncos up nicely. Five seasons later, who got the best of the deal?

Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Five years later, the Broncos are the winner of the Jay Cutler trade.


SportsNation

Who got the best of the Jay Cutler trade?

  •  
    50%
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    50%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,521)

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears have been to the playoffs one time with Cutler in the past five seasons and gave up two first-round picks, a third-round choice (the Bears got Denver's fifth-round pick and selected former wide receiver Johnny Knox) and quarterback Kyle Orton to obtain him. In that same five-year span, the Broncos have gone to the playoffs three times (Tim Tebow has been to the postseason as many times as Cutler) and are poised to win their first Super Bowl championship since the late 1990s on Sunday. I won't even bore you with the details that Denver eventually parlayed some of those picks from the Bears into wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. You know why? Because I don't need to. Success in the NFL is measured in playoff appearances and Super Bowl championships. Cutler supporters will view this as a shot at the quarterback. It's really not. I deal in reality. When a team surrenders two first-round draft picks, a third-rounder and its starting quarterback (Orton) to acquire a supposed franchise quarterback and then reaches the postseason just one time in the five years after the deal from a team that ends up reaching the playoffs three times and playing in a Super Bowl over the exact same time period, the winner is obvious: the second team. Spin it any way you want, the Broncos crushed the Bears on that trade five years ago.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears traded picks for a franchise quarterback, and that is what they have in Cutler. It hasn't been easy, but after a few stops and starts, it looks like Cutler is finally poised to live up to the expectations brought about with that trade. If he had been traded to a team with big receivers and an offensive-minded coaching staff, this wouldn't even be a question. It's a testament to the Broncos that they wisely used the picks to get Super Bowl contributors in Robert Ayers and (through trades) Thomas and Decker. When you trade a star to get draft picks, that's how it should work, a win-win for both sides. But the real key, of course, is Peyton Manning being available. Otherwise, this isn't even a debate.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears should pursue Martellus Bennett's brother Michael in free agency.


[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew
Tony Overman/The OlympianSeahawks defensive end Michael Bennett figures to get a big payday in free agency.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. It should be noted that with the record amount of underclassmen declaring for this year's draft, the Bears should be able to find young talent on the defensive line in May. But Bennett is playing the best of any Seahawks defensive lineman in the postseason, and should be a hot commodity in free agency. However, don't be surprised if Seattle makes a strong attempt to re-sign Bennett after it lucked out last offseason and signed him to a one-year deal after the veteran defender left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That being said, I assume the Bears will pursue Bennett and attempt to unite him with his brother in Chicago. But I have no idea if the Bears will be able to accomplish this until we see what kind of market there will be for Bennett when the new league year begins in March, or if Seattle tries to complete a deal with him before we reach that point of the NFL calendar.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. But the problem is money. Can the Bears afford both Bennetts? Though Chicago will almost certainly have to reconfigure contracts to make more salary room, it's easy to believe that Michael Bennett will command more than the Bears can offer. And he just might want to stay in Seattle, which is in, you know, the Super Bowl. As Martellus told reporters this week in New York, his brother's best friend is going to be Benjamin Franklin, because he wants to get paid. Still, the Bears have to pursue him.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears should use all of their draft picks on defensive players.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It's never a smart idea to enter a draft fixated on a single player or side of the ball, except of course if a team holds a top-five pick in the first round. Fixing the defense is clearly the Bears' No. 1 priority in the offseason, but general manager Phil Emery should not hesitate to devote a mid-round or later-round selection to improving the offense, if that player is hands down the best available talent on the board at that stage of the draft, and the Bears believe he can help them in 2014. Don't forget, the Bears still need another tight end to complement Martellus Bennett, and they could also be in the market for a starting center if veteran Roberto Garza finds a better offer on the open market and departs via free agency. Wide receivers and young backup quarterbacks are always considered commodities in the NFL. Eventually, the Bears will need a young quarterback on the depth chart to replace Josh McCown, or even Cutler in the future. Brandon Marshall is in the final year of his contract, and while the Bears could re-sign him or turn to 2013 seventh-rounder Marquess Wilson in the immediate future at the position, if a dynamic pass-catcher is available in the later rounds, take him. Good organizations usually share a common theme: They are flexible on draft weekend. While the Bears are likely to use some of their early picks on defense, it's best to keep an open mind when the draft reaches its later stages.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. You can't solve an immediate problem like the Bears' defense with a bunch of rookies. The Bears should look to address depth on the defensive line (cheaper than a premier free agent) and add a young safety in the first two rounds, and after that it's all about best player available and creating depth across the team. A good general manager, and Emery is one, uses the draft to help balance salaries across every position. I could see the Bears drafting another young offensive lineman, a young tight end and, yes, maybe a quarterback. It's all about finding value. But to fix the defense, the Bears are going to have to sign free agents. So the draft is not a cure-all for their ailments.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Marquess Wilson will emerge as the Bears' No. 3 receiver in 2014.


[+] EnlargeMarquess Wilson
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Bears like Marquess Wilson's potential, but can he take a big leap in his second season and become a No. 3 receiver?
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. This is a tough one. Wilson absolutely figures to have a larger role in the Bears' offense moving forward. But I hesitate to close the door on Earl Bennett after he had a relatively productive year in 2013 given his pecking order in the offense behind Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett. Presently, Earl Bennett is scheduled to count $2.450 million against the salary cap in 2014 after he took a pay cut last season that reduced his cap number to $1.350 million. Maybe another salary reduction is in the cards for him. You have to figure it's a strong possibility. If he accepts and again tries to earn some of the lost money back via incentives, I believe Earl Bennett has a strong chance to keep his stranglehold on the No. 3 wideout spot. He is a proven player. Wilson is not. At least, not yet. But this one is subject to change, because the Bears do think Wilson can develop into a serious playmaker in the coming years. If that in fact does occur, it could put Earl Bennett's roster spot in jeopardy at his current salary structure.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears would be wise to rework Earl Bennett's deal and keep him around another year. Last season, they restructured the deal to save cap money, and I assume that would happen again to keep him on the roster making more than $2 million. I don't know enough about Wilson to hand him the third receiver spot a month after the season ended, and I doubt the Bears do, either. Maybe they'll see something in OTAs that will convince them he's ready to step up into a prime-time role. But the Bears should want to keep Earl around for another season, at least, as the offense continues to improve.

New TE coach must develop Escobar

January, 18, 2014
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IRVING, Texas – With the Dallas Cowboys heading to the Senior Bowl on Monday, coach Jason Garrett knows he has at least one vacancy to fill with the departure of tight ends coach Wes Phillips to the Washington Redskins.

The No. 1 task of the next tight ends coach has to be the development of Gavin Escobar.

Escobar
Witten
The new tight ends coach will inherit future Hall of Famer Jason Witten, who will be entering his 12th season in 2014. He is the franchise’s all-time leading receiver. He is coming off a 73-catch, 851-yard, eight-touchdown season. If the Denver Broncos or San Francisco 49ers make it to the Super Bowl, Witten will play in his ninth Bowl.

It’s not that coaching Witten is easy. It might be more challenging. On the CBS pregame show last week Bill Cowher interviewed New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had this to say about Tom Brady:

"[Tom and I] have had a weekly meeting the entire time we've been together,'' Belichick said. “Tom is one of the toughest players I've ever had to coach, because when you walk into a meeting with Tom, he's already seen every game. Like the Colts. He's already seen every game the Colts have played defensively. So you can't go in there unprepared, you can't go in there saying, 'Well, I don't know if they're going to do this,' because he'll say, 'Did you see the Tennessee game? That's what they did.'

"You have to be as well-prepared as he is. And that's a good thing but it's also a hard thing. You can't throw the curveball by him. You better know what you're talking about, because he does.''

That’s the challenge for a coach with Witten. He knows everything inside and out. The coach has to challenge him in different ways.

But the Cowboys know what they are going to get in Witten.

They don’t know what they are going to get out of Escobar, their second-round pick in 2013. He had nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He needs to improve greatly as a blocker and it’s more than just getting stronger. He has to work at it, learn the technique, know all three positions the tight end has to play in this offense. Escobar can’t be a one-trick pony (or two tricks) of running the seams in the middle of the field and fades in the red zone.

The new coach has to get more out of Escobar than what the Cowboys got out of their other second-round tight ends in Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 15
Preseason power ranking: 13

Biggest surprise: The Chicago Bears' offensive line didn't exactly set the world on fire, but for the first time in recent memory the group wasn't the weak link of the team. The Bears revamped the offensive line by adding four new starters: Kyle Long, Jordan Mills, Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson. The group's efforts, combined with a more quick-hitting passing game, resulted in just 19 sacks for QB Jay Cutler, his lowest total since 11 with Denver in 2008. The offensive line in 2013 displayed more consistency than any at other time in Cutler's time in Chicago, but the group struggled at inopportune times and often was aided by Cutler and Josh McCown getting rid of the ball quickly. Still, this year's group laid a foundation it can build on.

Biggest disappointment: New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will unfairly take criticism for the defense's failures in 2013. Coming off a 2012 campaign in which the defense ranked No. 5 overall and in the top 10 against the run and the pass, the unit in 2013 surrendered the most rushing yards (2,583) and points (478) in franchise history. Injuries played a major role. They cost the team a combined 72 missed games, 43 among starters alone. In recent history, the defense was the one facet that Chicago could always count on. But that wasn't the case in 2013. What's most surprising is how quickly the defense's decline came after being the team's backbone for so many years.

Biggest need: The defense is badly in need of a total makeover, and the bulk of that work should be done on the defensive line. It's safe to say now that former first-round defensive end Shea McClellin hasn't lived up to expectations and franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton is overrated. The Bears also have to decide whether to move forward with Julius Peppers, who is expensive and starting to show his age (will be 33 on Jan. 18), while finding a way to bring back Corey Wootton. The back end needs help, too. The deals for cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are up, as is the contract for safety Major Wright. The Bears also need to bring in competition to push underperforming safety Chris Conte.

Team MVP: Running back Matt Forte quietly put together his best season as a pro, accounting for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,933) and career highs in rushing (1,339 yards) and receiving (74 catches, 594 yards). Receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery may have made flashier plays, but make no mistake: Forte is what makes the offense go. Cutler called Forte the best all-around back in the league, and he definitely made a strong case for it in 2013. A true three-down back, Forte threatened defenses as a runner and a receiver. On passing downs, Forte was also key in the team's protection schemes.


All-NFC North: Chicago Bears

January, 2, 2014
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


The Chicago Bears placed three offensive players on ESPN.com's All-NFC North team in Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, with one notable exception in Brandon Marshall.

Meanwhile, cornerback Tim Jennings served as the lone representative from Chicago’s struggling defense.

For the record, we nominated both Jeffery and Marshall since they are the NFL’s top receiving duo. Going into the regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers, they had combined for 2,562 yards -- the highest for a receiving pair in franchise history. Despite his pedigree as a four-time Pro Bowler and the fact he’s caught 90-plus balls in two consecutive seasons, Marshall fell victim to the numbers game as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson earned the spot on the all-division team opposite Jeffery. Going into the final game of the season, Marshall needs six catches for his fifth 100-reception season, which would tie him for the most in NFL history.

Interestingly, Jeffery, Marshall and Forte are just the seventh trio of teammates in NFL history to feature one 1,200-yard rusher and two 1,200-yard receivers in a season.

In his second season, Jeffery enters the finale with 1,341 yards and seven touchdowns on 86 receptions. Both Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler have campaigned pretty hard for Jeffery to be named to his first Pro Bowl. It’s almost certain that Marshall will make the Pro Bowl despite the snub on this NFC North team.

Having hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth time in his career, Forte has also broken Chicago’s single-season record for catches by a running back (70), a mark he previously set as a rookie.

Bennett, meanwhile, set career highs in receptions (64) and receiving yards (744), while tying a career high in receiving touchdowns (5).

With the way the Bears have performed on defense, Jennings is definitely the only player deserving of All-NFC North mention. His 12 interceptions since 2012 rank second in the NFL only to Seattle’s Richard Sherman (16). Jennings is also one of six players in 2013 to return multiple interceptions for touchdowns, and his three interception returns for TDs since 2012 are tied for second-most in the league over that span.

One of the most notable absences on the all-division team is Bears return man Devin Hester, who tied Deion Sanders' NFL record for return touchdowns with an 81-yard punt return score in Week 7 at Washington. Hester's 2013 campaign has been decent, but Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings put together a better season than arguably the best returner in NFL history.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brandon Marshall broke down the history of the quarterback-starved Chicago Bears franchise on Monday when asked whether Jay Cutler should be brought back in 2014 on a new contract.

With Chicago’s season coming to an end Sunday after a 33-28 loss to Green Bay, Cutler’s contract situation remains a hot topic because the quarterback is not signed beyond 2013. As the players cleared out their lockers at Halas Hall following final meetings with Bears coach Marc Trestman, Marshall provided his take on Cutler.

“One thing I know about Chicago: It’s been a long time since we had a quarterback like Jay Cutler,” Marshall said. “So all your stories this offseason, I think that should be the headline or that should be the story written this year: ‘Oh, how we love Jay Cutler,’ because it’s been so long. His first few years here he hadn’t gotten it done, and I think that’s not all on him. There’s some on him, but then you look around and he’s one of the most beat-up quarterbacks around; didn’t have adequate coaching on the offensive side of the ball. Every year I think he had a different offensive coordinator. Now that you have continuity, not only upstairs, but in the locker room or the room with the wide receivers, offensive line, running back position, it’s set up for him to be successful. The steps he’s taken this year in leadership, and even growing as a quarterback, mentally and physically, we saw those things.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhQuarterback Jay Cutler thrived this season under head coach Marc Trestman.
Despite Cutler’s record of futility against the Packers continuing on Sunday, the quarterback performed well in the loss. Cutler passed for 226 yards and two touchdowns to go with a passer rating of 103.8. In doing so, Cutler completed three passes for 30-plus yards, including a 67-yard connection to Alshon Jeffery, a 37-yarder to Marshall, and a 33-yarder to Matt Forte.

In eight previous games against the Packers, Cutler completed 142 of 257 passes for 1,702 yards, nine touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 61.5. Against the rest of the NFC North over that same span, he had thrown for 33 TDs and 16 INTs.

So despite a season hindered by Cutler missing time due to injuries, there’s no doubt that the quarterback showed growth under first-year Bears coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. In four seasons with the Bears prior to this season, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. In 2013, Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2, the quarterback’s best since his rookie season (2006).

“The man’s 30. Jay’s like 30 years old, ain’t he?” tight end Martellus Bennett asked. “How much development do y’all expect him to do? I haven’t really talked to him too much today. But he’s been an awesome teammate since day one for me. So I don’t know the Jay you guys [keep] talking about and all the [expletive] you guys write all the time, talking about Jay [has] changed. I only met one Jay Cutler, and he’s been awesome from day one.”

But center Roberto Garza senses a change in Cutler.

“It’s unbelievable,” Garza said. “To put up the numbers we did with that offense we had, and the playmakers we had week in and week out, it was a great thing to be a part of. To see Jay go out there and play like we know he can was good to see. It’s definitely something they are going to build on for the future.”

But will Cutler be back in 2014?

“There’s a lot of uncertainties,” Garza said. “But he’s a great quarterback. He deserves to be here and I’m sure that will all work out.”

Marshall admitted his input ultimately won’t sway general manager Phil Emery's decision. But Emery has mentioned on multiple occasions that he considers Cutler a franchise-level quarterback, and it’s unlikely the season-ending loss to the Packers changed that.

“Phil is smart. He’ll get it done. He’ll do what’s best for the team, and I think Jay is what’s best for the team,” Marshall said. “When was the last time you had a Jay Cutler? When was the last time you had Jay Cutler with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, [Matt] Slauson, [Jermon] Bushrod, [Kyle] Long, Garza, Trestman, Kromer, [receivers coach] Mike Groh, Phil Emery? The pieces are there.”

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field:

1. Unsteady Brees: It has often been said the Saints are a different team at home and on the road, but really, Drew Brees is a different quarterback. In seven home games before Sunday, Brees threw 23 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating was 122.5. On the road, Brees has thrown 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a passer rating of 84.8. Brees averaged almost two more yards per attempt at home than on the road.

New Orleans’ defense is actually a bit better on the road. The Saints have eight interceptions and 26 sacks on the road and had three picks and 21 sacks in the Superdome before Sunday.

2. Subplots and storylines: The game will draw huge ratings in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went to Austin’s Westlake High School a decade apart. Foles broke Brees’ school records for touchdowns in a season and a career and yards in a game and career. Brees held on to the mark for passing yards in a season.

Saints head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were both assistants on Ray Rhodes’ Eagles staff. Vitt coached linebackers from 1995 to 1998, while Payton coached quarterbacks in ’97 and ’98.

Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 2006. As a rookie, he played against the Saints in a divisional playoff game. The Saints won, 27-24.

Back in the 1980s, Buddy Ryan was head coach of the Eagles. Bill Davis, who had been an assistant on Dick Vermeil’s staff, was a personnel guy. They didn’t exactly get along, and Davis left in 1989.

Almost a quarter-century later, their sons are first-year defensive coordinators for the Saints and Eagles. Rob Ryan has done a dramatic job revamping the Saints' defense. New Orleans was worst in the NFL in yardage and points allowed in 2012. The Saints are fourth in yards and fifth in points under Ryan. Davis has engineered a transition to the 3-4 that has the Eagles playing markedly better defense in the second half of the season. The Eagles have held 10 of their past 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points.

3. Graham cracking: In Jimmy Graham, the Saints have arguably the most dangerous tight end in the league. The Eagles have had mixed success against tight ends this season.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates caught eight passes for 124 yards, but that was early in the season, before Davis’ unit hit its stride. Just last week, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett caught five balls for 85 yards. Tampa Bay’s Timothy Wright caught seven passes for 91 yards.

Going into Sunday night, tight ends have caught an average of 4.3 passes for 52.7 yards per game against the Eagles this season. Jason Witten had 12 catches for 135 yards for the Cowboys on Sunday.

W2W4: Packers at Bears

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
1:30
PM ET

GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-7-1) AT CHICAGO BEARS (8-7)

3:25 p.m. CT Sunday at Soldier Field on FOX
Justin Tuck and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesJustin Tuck, left, and the Giants will be trying to end the playoff hopes of Matthew Stafford's Lions.
It is a battle of disappointments on Sunday at Ford Field: the New York Giants, who have been disappointing all season, against the Detroit Lions, who have been one of the more surprising teams over the second half of the season -- in a bad way.

The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.

Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are ESPN.com NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).

Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?

Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.

What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?

Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.

A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.

This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.

That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?

Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.

One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?

Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.

What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.

So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.

That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?

Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.

Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?

Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.

Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.

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Eagles' defense regroups for Bears

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
1:30
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Coming off a game in which his defense gave up 48 points and lost three more defensive backs to injuries, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis called Sunday’s visit from the Chicago Bears “our biggest challenge of the season.”

That’s quite a distinction, considering the Eagles have faced Peyton Manning (allowing 52 points), Philip Rivers (33 points), Jamaal Charles (26 points), Larry Fitzgerald (21 points) and Calvin Johnson (20 snow-covered points).

But Davis was taking in all the factors: A game with enormous playoff implications for the Bears and possibly the Eagles; quarterback Jay Cutler and his array of weapons, including Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, and a secondary thrown into disarray by injuries and poor performance.

“Chicago might be one of the most talented offenses we face,” Davis said. “They’re obviously in the top five in scoring. They’ve got the big, physical Pro Bowl receivers – two of them. They’ve got a tight end who’s a big, athletic pass receiving tight end. The running back is as rounded as any running back we’ve faced.”

That would sound daunting coming off the nine consecutive games in which the Eagles' defense held the opposing team to 21 points or fewer. Coming off Sunday’s debacle in Minnesota, and dealing with the smoking ruins of his secondary, you can see why Davis is concerned.

Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin, who leads the team with four interceptions, has a concussion. His availability will be determined by the NFL concussion protocol. He would be replaced by safety Patrick Chung or cornerback Roc Carmichael, or a combination of both.

Davis may get rookie safety Earl Wolff back after a five-week absence due a knee injury. But Davis said Wolff will have to “crawl” back into the lineup before he’s completely back to where he was in early November.

Wolff’s replacement, the veteran Chung, was benched in favor of Kurt Coleman. Davis revealed Tuesday that decision was made before the game.

“Pat and Kurt knew we were rotating every two series,” Davis said. “Now we were rotating because Patrick is in a little bit of a slump. We were prepared in practice, we were 50/50 with the reps. That wasn’t something that was a knee-jerk reaction.”

Coleman injured his hamstring and spent the second half in the locker room getting treatment. Colt Anderson, who plays mostly special teams, injured his knee while pressed into service on defense.

Davis said Wolff and Coleman are “day to day,” while Anderson is “more week to week.”

And those are just the injured players. Davis also has to regroup with starting cornerbacks, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, who are coming off their worst performance since the Denver game. Safety Nate Allen earned the distinction of being the least-bad defensive back of the day for the Eagles.

“It is a well-rounded offense that’s coming at us,” Davis said. “We had a bad day in Minnesota. They’re in the right mindset. Nobody’s pouting about last week. We accepted it, we owned up to it, we talked about the mistakes. Now we’re going forward and we’re going to attack Chicago with everything we have.”

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 12

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
8:50
AM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 42-21 loss to the St. Louis Rams:

Run D still porous: Zac Stacy's 11-yard run on St. Louis' first play from scrimmage set the tone for what wound up being a rough day for Chicago's run defense. Two plays later, Tavon Austin took a pitch left, reversed field right and juked Bears safety Chris Conte to pick up a block to go down the home team's sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. St. Louis ripped the Bears for 82 yards rushing on its first three plays and set a Rams franchise record by finishing the first quarter with 123 yards rushing (100 coming on Austin's running and a 35-yard gain by Stacy).

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesDespite a tough road loss, Bears QB Josh McCown still threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns.
Austin and Stacy joined the company of runners such as Jonathan Dwyer, James Starks, Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice and Eddie Lacy, all players to bust runs for gains of 25 yards or more this season against the Bears. Chicago has now given up eight runs for gains of 32 yards or more, including three runs of 40-plus yards.

The Bears talk every week about needing to improve in this area. It's time now to actually do it.

Resilience: The Bears took a 14-0 punch in the face from the Rams, who scored their first two touchdowns 54 seconds apart, but stayed in the game because of their resilience. After Stacy scored on a 1-yard run to put the Rams up 14-0, Chicago marched 80 yards in 11 plays on the ensuing drive, capped by a Josh McCown 7-yard scoring strike to Martellus Bennett.

When the Rams took a 21-7 advantage at the end of the first quarter, Chicago responded with 5:19 left before intermission with McCown hitting Brandon Marshall for a TD pass to pull the Bears within a touchdown, 24-14 at the half. The wheels didn't start to fall off until the final 3:05.

Penalties still an issue: By halftime last week, the Bears had already topped their season high with six penalties for 61 yards. Chicago nearly topped that in the first half Sunday, as it was flagged five times for 47 yards in the first half. In all, the Bears were flagged 10 times for 84 yards with two calls taking away touchdowns.

The Bears played relatively clean football over the first eight games, but that's obviously changed some over the past two contests. With the Bears still fighting for a postseason spot, one penalty can make the difference in winning or losing. So the club needs to clean up some things.

Josh McCown: With Jay Cutler sidelined, if the Bears are forced to play the backup quarterback another week, McCown certainly inspires confidence. Although McCown threw an interception late in the game, he stood with poise in the face of tremendous pressure all game and delivered the ball accurately despite taking some vicious shots. McCown finished with a passer rating of 102.4 with a pair of touchdowns.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Shaking his head and smiling, Josh McCown paused for a couple of seconds Thursday to consider how someone could hear his thick Texas drawl in the huddle and think it’s reminiscent of “a combination of Jesus and Ben Stiller,” as tight end Martellus Bennett had just described it minutes earlier.

“Uh, I’m trying to process Ben Stiller and Jesus,” McCown said, laughing. “I just want to be there to listen to them two talk, because I think that would be cool.”

McCown took some ribbing for his accent at Halas Hall this week, with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer joking the quarterback’s drawl “slowed [offensive calls] down just a little bit.” But nobody inside the locker room or the organization is complaining about the results produced by McCown, who is 2-0 in relief of starting quarterback Jay Cutler.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJosh McCown's play has earned him high praise indeed from his Bears coaches and teammates.
McCown has completed 61 of 101 passes for 754 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, to go with a passer rating of 100.0, and the Bears' offense hasn’t seemed to skip a beat without Cutler in the picture.

Coming into the season, McCown, 34, owned a record of 13-20 as a starter, which makes his recent success seem somewhat improbable.

“Someone once said a long time ago, the difference between a very good player and an average player is reps,” St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “And that’s clearly what we see on tape with Josh. He’s a fine football player. He’s playing very well. His numbers reflect that.”

McCown attributes his success to a combination of factors, ranging from a more mature approach to the game to the bevy of weapons surrounding him, not to mention a strong belief in the scheme brought to Chicago by Bears coach Marc Trestman. McCown hasn’t started more than two games in a season since 2007, when he struggled to a 2-7 record with the Oakland Raiders.

Even after that bout of adversity, a year out of the game in 2010, and mostly fruitless stops with two more teams (including Chicago), McCown doesn’t “know if I allowed myself” to consider whether he’d ever again receive an opportunity to start in the NFL.

“I wasn’t hoping it would happen. I wasn’t going, ‘I can’t wait until Jay gets hurt so I get a chance,’” McCown said. “It was just more of every day trying to get better so that if I have to play, I’ll be ready to play and be productive. Nothing more than that, and nothing more than just so I can be productive for this team right now. On whatever day that is, can I go out and play good football and give us a chance to win the ballgame?”

McCown obviously has answered that question in the affirmative in his last two outings. Asked about the quarterback’s winding career path, Trestman said, “You just learn that every quarterback’s on their own journey.”

“You look at the history of the game and where quarterbacks come from. Some are drafted in the first round and do well, others don’t. Others are drafted the 199th pick in the draft, and they wind up winning three Super Bowls and are Hall of Famers. Other guys are working in a grocery store one year and the next year they’re MVPs in Super Bowls,” Trestman said. “Another guy I coached didn’t start playing until he was 29 years old, and he’s in the Hall of Fame today. So they all have their own way of reaching this moment.

“Josh in an unselfish guy who works very hard, who just has been working hard his whole career, doing whatever’s asked of him to do, and he’s in a position to help this football team, and I don’t think he’s carrying it on his shoulders. Everybody is on their own journey in their own place emotionally, physically, and you know Josh is in that place right now.”

In the huddle, however, McCown seems right at home, despite Bennett’s colorful description.

Asked how McCown sounds in the huddle, Bennett said, “Ben Stiller, maybe, but Ben Stiller in ‘Heavyweights.’ Yeah, it’s a little country, but it’s a combination of Jesus and Ben Stiller.”

“We’ve all heard Jesus,” the tight end added. “But some of us aren’t listening.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears list tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle) as questionable to face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, while defensive end Shea McClellin (hamstring) is doubtful after sitting out the entire week of practice.

Bennett rested his sore ankle on Thursday, but returned to the field in limited fashion on Friday.

“He (Bennett) worked probably 50 percent of the practice,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We were trying to be smart with him, but he got work in today and did well. Hopefully with 48 hours (until kickoff on Sunday) he’ll feel even better. But we got some execution done with him, so it was good.”

Bennett has battled through nagging injuries much of the season, but has still managed to start all nine games and catch 40 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns.

McClellin was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his three-sack performance against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 4, but he tweaked his hamstring at practice last Thursday and was inactive for the Bears’ Week 10 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

McClellin worked on the side with the training staff the past three days during practice but did not officially participate.

In other injury news, linebacker Lance Briggs (shoulder), quarterback Jay Cutler (ankle) and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff (groin) were all ruled out for Sunday.

The Bears believe Ratliff will be in a position to contribute sometime in the next couple of weeks. The veteran defensive tackle participated in conditioning drills on Friday while his teammates practiced. Ratliff has not played in an NFL game since last November as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bears also list long-snapper Patrick Mannelly (calf) as doubtful and right guard Jordan Mills (quad) as probable.

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