Before digging too deeply, I need to admit something. This article will have no awesome graphics explaining Bennett’s ability (or lack thereof) at blocking. It will not get into an Xs and Os breakdown of the two-point conversion and whether or not Bennett messed up his assignment. Any player can have a bad game, and others on this site are vastly better at understanding and explaining chalkboard stuff than I am. However, it does not take an expert to see that the Black Unicorn falls short of expectations. He can do some good things for the Bears at times, but he also falls short of our hopes.
Jay and Tight Ends
Jay Cutler likes using tight ends. Over forty of his touchdowns as a Bear have been thrown to tight ends, and we have gotten used to seeing 6-to-83. As a Bear, Marty B has caught nearly 70% of the passes thrown his way, and he has averaged just over 10 yards per reception. He has a touchdown once every three games, and Bennett is a nice, reassuring safety blanket for Jay. Who knows where we would be without him, right?
Well, we’d probably be just fine. A couple of those numbers quoted above are above the norm for Bennett’s career. His yards per reception outside of Chicago were a hair better than they have been in the Windy City (10.5 for his non-Chicago career vs. 10.2 in Chicago). However, he has a much better catch rate in Chicago (63% Dallas + New York vs. 70% in Chicago), and he has a much better touchdown rate as well (0.12 per game in Dallas + New York vs. 0.34 per game in Chicago). In fact, only his poor yardage per reception this year keeps his time in Chicago from being uniformly better than the rest of his career (the Seattle game’s 3.75 yards per reception was not kind to his statline—but just about the only Bear who got good stats out of that game was Pat O’Donnell).
In other words, it’s possible that Jay helps Bennett at least as much as Bennett helps Cutler. In fact, the same trend holds up when we take a quick look at two other tight ends who have played with Cutler.
Yards / Reception
TD / Game
In this chart, the first number represents a player’s performance in Chicago, whereas the number in parenthesis represents the rest of that player’s career (all numbers are taken from Pro Football Reference as of 8pm on Sunday). As an offensive weapon, Kellen Davis was better during his time in Chicago than he was anywhere else, and it’s not really close. Remember how bad Kellen Davis was? Well, he was better with Jay than he was for the rest of his career, enjoying 11 of his 13 career touchdowns during his four-year span in Chicago. To be fair, he only played 30 games of his career outside of Chicago, but that’s still an indication that Jay was able to use him to good effect when others were not.
What about Zach Miller? In his battered and beleaguered career, Miller has managed to play in 42 games. In his Chicago games, he has caught 83% of the passes thrown his way, but while he was in Jacksonville he only caught 75% of the passes in his direction. Likewise, he has a rate of 0.33 touchdowns per game in Chicago but a rate of 0.12 touchdowns per game playing for the Jaguars. A quick look suggests, then, that while having a good tight end really helps a team out, having Jay Cutler as your quarterback really helps a tight end out.
Of course, there’s a rather prominent player missing from this analysis so far, and he’s the tight end Bennett was supposed to replace: Greg Olsen. I’m not going to pretend that Olsen’s stats in Carolina are anything short of spectacular. Greg Olsen is a really good tight end no matter who is throwing him the ball. Additionally, Cam Newton is frequently underrated as a quarterback, but he is an extraordinarily good football player. However, looking at just Olsen’s Chicago career, there’s also a difference. Prior to Jay, Olsen caught about 63% of the passes thrown his way and scored a touchdown every at a rate of 0.23 per game; with Jay, Olsen caught only 57% of the passes thrown his way but scored a touchdown at a rate of 0.40 per game (for his entire career, Olsen is at a 61% catch rate and a 0.35 TD rate). His output hovers around 10 yards per reception all four years with the Bears. Olsen played more efficient football with the other Bears’ QBs, but he was a bigger scoring threat with Cutler.
What this tour through the history of major Bears tight ends tells us is that while Martellus Bennett is a big part of the Chicago offense, much of this is because he’s the number one tight end in the Bears’ offense. There is a lot of discussion from time to time about how Jay doesn’t seem to elevate the players around him, and this might be true for players who are already extraordinary (looking at you, Greg – wistfully, I might add). However, Cutler does seem to elevate his tight ends and make them work for him. This suggests that Bennett is probably a lot more expendable than he seems.
Call it the Ben Watson effect. Jimmy Graham leaves New Orleans and suddenly Ben Watson is catching nearly 80% of his passes and going for 12 yards per catch when prior to this year, Watson was at a 55% catch rate with 11.5 yards per catch. If that seems like a pedestrian bump in yards per catch, just realize that Watson spent the first six years of his career in New England, where they know how to use tight ends pretty well, too.
Bennett hits free agency in 2017, and he currently has a contract worth a little over $5 million a year; his cap hit this year is $6,125,000. That puts him in the same league as Jason Witten, Dennis Pitta, and Greg Olsen—all of whom have a cap hit between $6.1 million and $6.3 million. Next year, Bennett’s cap hit will go up a bit to $6.3 million (Olsen’s will actually go down closer to $5 mil), but that will put him 11th on the tight end money scale.
Zach Miller is currently signed for $660,000 this year, and while resigning him could be a more expensive proposition, it is unlikely to be as expensive of an endeavor as hanging on to Bennett would be. For that matter, at least twenty teams are paying their tight end less than we are paying Bennett, and while Chicago is getting good production out of him, we certainly aren’t getting Greg Olsen-level production. The difference between what Bennett offers and what Miller offers is not worth a decimal place, but that is essentially what the Bears have right now on the books (at least according to SportTrac and Overthecap).
However, there’s another side to this coin. A lot of teams could use an upgrade at tight end. Cutler is far from the only quarterback who likes having a big threat who can block and catch in traffic. Bennett is signed to a high-value contract, but his contract is less than the cost of Jordan Cameron or Charles Clay (both of whom are in the mid-$7mil/year range with a cap hit over $9mil coming up). In other words, while we have reason to think that Chicago would be okay without Martellus Bennett, there is actually a reason to think that other teams would see Bennett as having some value. He is usually a pretty good tight end, and his baseline performance might offer another team some kind of advantage.
In order to make a trade, you have to have a willing partner, and Martellus Bennett make actually net something of value in return if offered up at the end of the season.
Locker Room Chemistry
There’s a final angle to consider if what happens on the field and what happens in the front office are not enough to persuade you that maybe this should be Bennett’s last season in Chicago, and that’s the intangible, unquantifiable quagmire that is ‘chemistry.’ From the outside looking in, it’s tough to know what kind of a teammate someone really is, but we do have some reference points to use.
Martellus Bennett once got suspended by Marc Trestman for inappropriate behavior. Let that sink in for a moment moment. Next, consider this—he got into a Twitter feud with Kyle Long. Kyle Long. Leave aside any drama he might or might not have with Cutler. Forget about Trestman (I try to do so regularly). Just focus on the fact that Bennett was willing to get into a public spat with one of the most visible and dynamic social leaders of the Chicago Bears. His work ethic has been questioned before, and his attitude certainly leaves something to be desired. These things might hurt his trade value, but probably not enough to make him untradeable. However, Bennett does seem to have an attitude problem.
So, if we put it all together, we have a piece that Pace can move without really hurting the team. Moving him might even make the team better. That sounds like a good candidate for a trade, at least to me.