With tight end an obvious need for the 2013 Chicago Bears, we thought we would take a deeper look into where the starting tight ends in the NFL have been drafted, and whether or not they should look to free agency for their tight end deficiency.
The 2013 NFL Draft features two possible 1st rounders at the Tight End position, and the TE needy Chicago Bears are currently slotted in the 20th selection. Both Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz are receiving 1st round grades, and one of, if not both, should be available when the Bears select at 20.
But should they take a tight end in the 1st round?
Some scouts say that you should never take a tight end in the 1st round unless they have freakish ability like Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers. A few year sago, the Bears themselves plucked a TE in the 1st round when they grabbed Greg Olsen from the Miami Hurricanes. These days Olsen sure would look good in a Bears uniform, especially with the West Coast Offense back in Chicago, but that ship sailed for various reasons. Besides Davis and Olsen, there are eight other teams that start a former 1st rounder at tight end. In fact the ten 1st rounders starting at TE are the most of any other round. That kind of poo poos the notion that you shouldn't draft a TE in the 1st...
Next most is a tie with six each that were either 2nd or 3rd rounders. There are two starting TEs that were drafted in the 4th round, four that were drafted in the 5th, two drafted in the 6th, none in the 7th, and two that were undrafted free agents.
The depth chart data was complied using a combination of team sites and NFL.com, so a few teams may have had injuries playing a role in who was atop the depth chart. These findings aren't exactly mind blowing, and it's probably on par with other positions in the NFL. Each team obviously must weigh their options between best player available and team need, or a combination of the two, and draft accordingly. Does a team rank the #1 TE ahead of the #4 tackle? Is finding a legitimate pass catching TE a high enough priority in the draft for the Bears to pluck a guy in the firts?
Let's look at some specific successful players at tight end.
On the 2012 NFL All Pro Team, 1st teamer Tony Gonzalez was a 1st round draft pick and 2nd team All Pro Jason Witten was a 3rd rounder. Of the seven tight ends with 2013 Pro Bowl credentials, you had three 1st rounders in Gonzalez, Heath Miller, and Jermaine Gresham. There were two 2nd rounders in Rob Gronkowski and Kyle Rudolph, and the other two were drafted in the 3rd round, Witten and Owen Daniels. It makes sense that the better prospects pan out into Pro Bowl type players, but that's not to say you can't find quality later in the draft.
There are a few teams that consistently rely on more than one TE. The New England Patriots utilize both Gronkowski and 4th rounder Aaron Hernandez. The Denver Broncos throw to both 6th rounder Joel Dreessen, and 4th rounder Jacob Tamme, and the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens had success with starter Ed Dickson, who was a 3rd round pick, and 4th rounder Dennis Pitta.
Will the Bears pull the trigger on a TE at #20 or roll the dice on a guy later in the draft? Maybe they'll bypass the draft altogether and go the free agent route to fill the positional need. It seems as though you can find quality all up and down a draft board, but would a rookie give the Bears the kind of oomph the offense needs in 2013?
There are certainly a few free agent players that the Bears could peruse that could bridge the talent gap at the position. Factor in the mediocre recent history of rookie TEs making an impact in year one, and free agency is looking like a better quick fix option. The tight end with the most rookie receptions in 2012 was 3rd rounder Dwayne Allen of the Colts with 45 receptions. He was followed by his teammate Coby Fleener who had 26. Number three on the list only had 8 catches. The leading rookie TE receiver in 2011 was 2nd rounder Lance Kendricks with 28. In 2010 there were actually 5 rookie TEs with more than 31 receptions, but in the last 10 years the highest number of receptions by a rookie TE was Seattle's John Carlson with 55 in 2008.
Is there a TE in this draft that can produce 40-50 receptions for the Chicago Bears?
I think the Bears would be wise to explore free agency this off season to find a starting TE, and if they strike out in finding a game changing free agent, then look to the draft. I know it depends on how the 1st round falls, but I think there will be higher players on Chicago's draft board than either Ertz or Eifert.
What do you guys think? Free agency or the draft for the Bears next starting tight end? Or perhaps you're content with Kellen Davis remaining the starter, in which case I'd suggest you seek medical attention immediately.