Bears positional analysis: Tight ends
Bears positional analysis: Tight ends
By Brad Biggs
Seventh in a 10-part series
Tight end Greg Olsen took the best possible view on a 2010 season in which his production as a receiver dipped significantly when he said the adjustment to Mike Martz's offense has made him a better all-around player.
Olsen believes he made considerable improvement as a blocker, and he certainly displayed versatility as often as he lined up in the backfield and did different things that the scheme called for with Martz's playbook. The roster flexibility created by having a player like Olsen can't be overlooked.
However, the Chicago Bears drafted him 31st overall in 2007 to be a pass-catching tight end. There were 20 tight ends in the NFL with better receiving numbers in 2010, not the kind of flashy numbers Olsen would like as he moves a year closer to the end of his contract. Olsen expressed concern when Martz was first hired and the idea of a trade was discussed by him and the team. His goal, of course, is to get a lucrative second contract. The Bears thought they had a deal lined up with New England going into draft weekend, a trade that would have netted them a second-round draft pick in return, but the Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and solved their need that way.
Now, Olsen prepares for the final year of his rookie contract coming off a season in which he caught 41 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns. As much as the Bears struggled passing the ball at times, it's fair to say Olsen was under-utilized. It's hard to fathom how he was ignored at times, especially as bad as the offense was on third down for half of the season.
Tight ends combined for 88 receptions under Ron Turner in 2009. They had 48 under Martz. Clearly, Martz can get more out of Olsen in 2011. He has to find a way because it's unlikely his trade value is high enough that it would make sense to deal him. At this point, it would be surprising if the team went to Olsen with the kind of contract extension he'd like to receive. He might figure that his best ticket is to hit the free-agent market, but so few players are willing to roll the dice with the risks they have.
Olsen could be among the top 10 tight ends in the league in terms of pass-catching production in the right scheme. It's hard to imagine that happening in 2011, though, after he had only three more receptions more than Ernie Conwell did in 2001. Those 38 catches by Conwell for the St. Louis Rams was the previous high for a tight end in a Martz scheme.
Roll call: Desmond Clark, Kellen Davis, Brandon Manumaleuna, Greg Olsen.
2010 overview: Two decisions were made at the start of March last year that shaped the position. First, the team decided to make a hard push for Brandon Manumaluna, a blocking tight end with experience in Martz's scheme and a history of durability. The second decision was to pay Desmond Clark a $475,000 roster bonus that was due at the start of the league year, a move that essentially secured his place for the season. Discussion was held on what to do with Clark and there was talk of releasing him. But the goal at the time was to trade Olsen, and the thought was the team would need Clark in the event Olsen was moved for a draft pick. When Olsen wasn't traded, the Bears had four tight ends, one more than most teams carry, and certainly one more than a Martz offense would need. But having invested in Clark, who also had a $25,000 workout bonus, the Bears kept him and you can't fault the decision. Tight end is one of the positions that is most injured in the league. The Bears remained healthy there like they did just about everywhere else and consequently Clark was forced to be a spectator most Sundays. He handled his demotion professionally and got props for doing his job the right way on the practice field.
Manumaleuna, who missed only two games in his first nine seasons, was slowed by arthroscopic knee surgery before the draft. He wasn't 100 percent when training camp opened and got off to a bit of a slow start. A lucrative contract -- he received a $15 million, five-year deal with $6.105 million paid in 2010 -- made him a target for fans. With the popular veteran Clark sidelined, Manumaleuna was often criticized, but he wasn't signed to catch passes. At 295 pounds, he was essentially an extra offensive tackle for an offensive line that needed help. Manumaleuna's presence can best be highlighted by the improvements made in the running game. Matt Forte became the first Bears' running back in more than two decades to average 4.5 yards per carry (minimum 100 rushes) and the Bears were effective on the ground in the second half of the season. The tight end doesn't do all that work, but Manumaleuna played a significant role in the improved ground game. That being said, he needs to be more consistent in 2011 when he's scheduled to receive a $1 million roster bonus with a base salary of $1.495 million and a $100,000 workout bonus.
The biggest adjustment for Olsen was lining up all over the place. Without a true fullback on the roster, the team relied on Olsen and Manumaleuna to line up in the backfield from time to time. Olsen was used as an in-line blocker and also lined up in the slot and out wide. It's important for Olsen to be versatile, but his greatest value to the offense is as a receiver and that should be one of the focuses for the coaching staff in the offseason.
"I didn't have as many catches but I feel like I had as many impact plays if not more, key catches, third downs, touchdowns, whatever the case," Olsen said last month before the divisional round playoff game vs. Seattle. "I feel like I contribute in the running game, pass protection in the backfield, blitz pickup, so it's not always about stats.
"This year kind of opened my eyes to that. In the past, I was kind of caught up, I wanted to catch the ball more. This year, it opened me to, 'Hey, you can be a tight end and have a huge impact on the game and maybe only catch one or two passes.' There is no doubt I am a better all-around player."
Kellen Davis was primarily used in the tank package, which is the name for the three tight-end personnel group. He's continuing to develop and still has room to grow. Physically, he's everything you look for in a tight end at 6-7, 262 pounds. If he can grow more this offseason, he could carve out a nice role for himself moving forward.
Free agency/draft priority: Low. Clark is almost guaranteed to be departing as he will be an unrestricted free agent. He might have a year or two left, but he'll have to seek work elsewhere. It's unlikely the Bears will want to carry four tight ends in 2011 and Davis should be in a position to spread his wings. If the Bears go without a fourth tight end, it could enable them to carry a fullback or add another player elsewhere. Any significant additions would be surprising here. The Bears have a first-round pick and a player they invested good money in at the position. And Martz isn't big into tight ends as it is.
Looking ahead: Before we look ahead, it's important to note the contributions made by Clark. He was never a captain, but he could have been and he had that kind of respect in the locker room. One of the few remaining players from the Dick Jauron era, Clark was a good free-agent signing. He never was a star, but he gave solid, dependable production every year and that's what you need to find when you venture out into the open market looking for help. He's easily one of the best free-agent moves made during Jerry Angelo's tenure. The Bears need to find a way to feature Olsen more in the passing game and Davis needs to expand his role and become a more consistent performer. If those two things happen and Manumaleua does his thing, the Bears could be better at the position next season.
Bottom line: Olsen is saying the right things, and as the son of a coach, he's almost always going to do that. But you have to believe there were elements of the 2010 offense that didn't sit well with him. He knows he can add more to the unit than he did.
Coming Wednesday: Safeties.