The Saints' Jimmy Graham made huge downfield plays against the 49ers for New Orleans Saturday afternoon. What could an elite tight end do for the Bears in 2012?
If the NFL Divisional Playoffs have taught us anything, it’s the importance of the tight end in today’s NFL.
The tight end position has become the most versatile and difficult to cover player on the field. When used properly, tight ends will burn defenses in the seams (especially in Cover Two schemes) and can also make big plays when flexed out to the sidelines.
Look at the players who have stepped up this postseason: Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Vernon Davis. They’re all tight ends who have found the end zone multiple times these playoffs.
How do you properly defend a tight end when there are other threats on an offense? Do you put a safety on the tight end? A nickel back? Don’t bother assigning a linebacker, because they’ll get beat in their matchups 90 percent of the time.
It’s obvious that today’s winning teams in a pass-happy league all have featured tight end weapons.
That brings up to the Chicago Bears.
Under the Mike Martz-ian way of doing things, the former Bears offensive coordinator did everything he could to flush the position out of the offense entirely.
It’s because of him the team traded former first-round pick Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers and it’s because of him the team signed a sixth offensive lineman in Matt Spaeth.
With Martz gone and General Manager Jerry Angelo also out the door, this is a chance for the new Bears GM to right the wrongs offensively, starting at the tight end position.
Bears President Ted Phillips and CEO George McCaskey each said multiple times at the Angelo firing press conference two weeks ago that the goal for 2012 will be to catch up and contend with the other teams in the NFC North.
They know they’re the third-best team in that division and face an uphill climb to regain supremacy in the North.
The Green Bay Packers have Jermichael Finley. The Detroit Lions have Brandon Pettigrew. Even the lowly Minnesota Vikings have rookie Kyle Rudolph from Notre Dame, on whom they spent a high second-round draft pick.
So is upgrading at tight end the first of many moves that need to be made in order for the Bears to get back in the thick of their division? And if so, what direction could they go?
Current No. 1 tight end Kellen Davis is a free agent at the end of this season. Whether he returns is up in the air.
But for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume for the sake of argument he doesn’t return to Chicago in 2012.
If considering a free agent signing to improve at tight end, options include Fred Davis, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jeremy Shockey, Randy McMichael, Daniel Fells, Joel Dreessen, Scott Chandler and Martellus Bennett.
There are a few names that would work, but no one elite that would make an immediate impact like a Gronkowski or Graham would.
What about breaking the ice on tight ends in the NFL Draft in April? The Bears are currently picking at No. 19 in the first round. There was an early run of left tackles in last season’s draft, so if the same happens again this year, Chicago could consider grabbing a tight end early.
With the aforementioned trade of Olsen to the Panthers, the Bears acquired an extra third-round selection. So with four current picks in the first three rounds, Chicago would be smart to draft a tight end high.
Here’s why a tight end would fix so many problems for the Monsters of the Midway. Newly appointed offensive coordinator Mike Tice wants to get back to a basic heavy-run plan of attack with lots of play action and a deep vertical threat to stretch the field.
In order to make that happen, the Bears will need to find a No. 1 receiver to give the downfield threat quarterback Jay Cutler will need to take pressure off of the line of scrimmage. The Bears could also benefit from a solid tight end to work the middle of the field off the play action.
Being able to gain even a few yards on a tight end curl or interior screen will make things so much easier for Cutler. Not having to face third-and-long will open up the playbook for more rushing options for Matt Forte and would enable Cutler to roll out of the pocket and make plays with his feet.
Watching the playoffs should remind Bears fans just how important the tight end position is and how useful it can be to keep an offense on pace when utilized properly and effectively.
To think that this team has shunned the position all together for the last two seasons should make fans cringe. Imagine what could have been if Chicago didn’t neglect the one spot in the field that might eventually win a team a Super Bowl this season.
Brett Lyons is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official interview materials.
Follow Brett Lyons on Twitter @BrettLyons670.