Eighth in a 13-part series of previews for Bears training camp .
The departure of tight end Greg Olsen on the eve of training camp in 2011 had more to do with the Bears' decision not to invest in the position for the long haul than it did with offensive co-ordinator Mike Martz's personnel preferences.
Nevertheless, the move put the franchise in an unusual position in an era when offenses are seeking to exploit defenses with multiple tight ends. The Bears had none despite the charade that Kellen Davis, on a contract that paid him $6 million over the previous two seasons, was a legitimate threat.
It removed a key component of the offense from quarterback Jay Cutler's disposal and handicapped the Bears, whether they admit it or not. In the last two seasons, Bears tight ends produced 54 receptions for 553 yards and 10 touchdowns. No team in the NFL had fewer catches and yards from tight ends in that span.
So, general manager Phil Emery signed free agent Martellus Bennett, who blossomed in one year with the Giants after spending four seasons in the shadow of the Cowboys' Jason Witten. The Bears potentially invested $20.4 million in Bennett over the next four seasons, guaranteeing him $9.2 million.
You could have an interesting debate about the value of Bennett vs. Olsen, who received a $24.7 million, five-year contract from the Panthers ($8.7 million guaranteed) after former GM Jerry Angelo traded him for a third-round draft pick.
Bennett is two years younger and his career season a year ago of 55 catches for 626 yards and five touchdowns doesn't measure up to what Olsen produced in for the Panthers — 69 catches for 843 yards and five touchdowns. It probably boils down to a matter of preference. Olsen is a more natural receiver but never has been effective as a blocker. Bennett expects to be even more productive in the passing game this season and is considered a solid contributor to the running game. He's simply a more complete, every-down player.
Cutler always has shown a propensity to look for the tight end in the red zone as 28 of his 82 touchdown passes for the Bears have gone to tight ends —even Davis — including 13 of 27 in 2009. Expectations are Bennett will be busy in the red zone.
Preview: With more exposure it is going to be interesting to see how Bennett does against defenses that will be seeking to contain him. They're not going to ignore him and focus solely on Brandon Marshall. In New York last season, Bennett saw more aggressive coverage after a fast start to the season. Giants' opponents were not ignoring Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to slow him, but they were paying more attention to him.
Giants tight ends coach Michael Pope, considered maybe the best assistant at the position in the NFL, recognized it last season.
"He's not getting the free releases he was getting earlier in the year, and getting through that five yards is a challenge for anyone that is any good," Pope said, according to ESPN New York. "They are trying to batter him at the line of scrimmage (since) he established himself as a threat."
OK, expect Bennett to be bumped at the line of scrimmage where he will not be getting the free releases Davis often received. If the arrow still is pointing up with Bennett, as the Bears believe, it's not going to be a problem spot.
The biggest question is who will fill complementary roles around Bennett. H-back Evan Rodriguez was released after a DUI arrest and true fullback Michael Fiammetta was signed in his place. Hindsight is a gift no general manager possesses. But you wonder if Rodriguez's DUI had been before the draft if the Bears would have selected Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, considered the best prospect at the position, with the 20th overall pick instead of guard Kyle Long. Eifert, who the Bears will see in the season opener, went next to the Bengals.
After Bennett, the other five tight ends on the roster have appeared in a combined 73 NFL games with 25 starts — 16 by Brody Eldridge, who did not play in a game last season and might be a longshot for the roster. Steve Maneri figures to be a fit after he was signed to a $1.55 million, two-year contract. The converted offensive tackle is a blocker and replaces veteran Matt Spaeth, who was solid in the role the previous two seasons.
The player the Bears would love to see flourish is Fendi Onobun, a former college basketball star.
Onobun looked the part during the offseason program but it's dangerous to draw conclusions based on what happens in the spring. He didn't play high school football and played at the University of Houston for just one year after a four-year career as a forward at Arizona. The Rams drafted him in the sixth round in 2010 and the Bears are hoping the light turns on for him this year, the same thing four other teams after the Rams hoped for with Onobun.
He's athletic and can run but big-time experience on the hardwood doesn't make every big basketball player into the next Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham.
Kyle Adams has done a variety of things in appearing in 23 games over the previous two seasons. He could fit into a hybrid role. Gabe Miller spent much of last season on the team's practice squad but he is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs to begin the season.
You can't rule out the possibility the Bears will look to pick someone off the waiver wire during cutdowns.
Glass half-full: If Bennett still is improving, he should be a valuable member of the offense as a receiver and on the edge for running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Cracking the Pro Bowl team would require some big statistics, but it is easy to see him approaching double-digits in touchdown receptions and he could top the numbers he put up last season with the Giants if he's the sure-handed target everyone expects.
Glass half-empty: Well, there is almost no way the production will be as poor as it was the previous two seasons. Depth could be an issue and maybe the question of drafting Eifert will follow Emery if he goes on to big things for the Bengals.
Coaching change: Andy Bischoff comes to the Bears after spending the previous five seasons working under Marc Trestman in Montreal. He held a variety of roles for the Alouettes, serving as the running backs coach, special teams coordinator and as an assistant to Trestman. Before that, he was an assistant at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minn., the program that produced a former Florida State quarterback recruit — Twins catcher Joe Mauer — and former Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Bottom line: Bennett should prove to be as important an offseason addition as left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
Roll call: Tight ends
Name Ht Wt Experience 2013 base salary 2013 salary cap figure
Kyle Adams 6-4, 255, 3rd season, $555,000, $556,668
Martellus Bennett 6-6, 265, 6th season, $715,000, $1.94 million
Brody Eldridge 6-5, 265, 3rd season, $630,000, $630,000
Steve Maneri 6-6, 280, 3rd season, $630,000, $672,800
Gabe Miller 6-3, 257, 2nd season, $405,000, $405,000
Fendi Onobun 6-6, 260, 3rd season, $555,000, $555,000Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun