Tight end is a position with legacy status in Chicago. Much of that legacy is tied to a legendary figure in Bears football; Mike Ditka. "Iron Mike" has had a tremendous impact on the football landscape in the Windy City from both sides of the sideline. On the field he helped a once overlooked position gain prominence and parlayed that success into a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After returning to Chicago as the coach of the Bears, Ditka delivered Chicago's only modern NFL Championship title. Regardless of what you think about Ditka's life since leaving the Bears sideline, he was a force to be reckoned with; both as a player and a coach.
Since Ditka, a few tight ends have put in performances that endeared them to Bears fans but they haven't really made their mark on the NFL landscape. Emery Moorehead was beloved for his workmanlike role in helping the Bears to the Superbowl in 1985. Desmond Clark is also fondly remembered for solid efforts on Chicago teams in the mid-2000's, including the NFC Champions of 2006. In 2007 the Bears looked to be loaded at the position after drafting Greg Olsen out of Miami in the 1st round. However the Bears failed to feature Olsen and he was eventually traded to Carolina where he is still producing excellent results. Those are the "good names" in the recent history section of Chicago's TE roster.
For every positive step at TE there were plenty of earlier missteps. Pat Dunsmore (4th round), Jim Thornton (4th round), Chris Gedney (3rd round), Alonzo Mayes (4th round) and John Allred (2nd round) represent huge amounts of draft capital and concerted effort to restock the position throughout the 80's and 90's. None of those selections produced serious dividends.
The current chapter in Chicago's tight end story has been a little brighter since the Bears bit the bullet and signed Martellus Bennett as a free agent in 2013. Bennett has been a very productive player and stabilized the starting TE spot in a way the Bears haven't enjoyed in some time. He's an eccentric personality and some would argue a distraction; but he's also been better than anyone the Bears have trotted out at the position for quite a while. The biggest knock against him currently is his lack of consistency. When he is good he is very good, and when he is bad the drop off in his play is obvious. That has added up to a middle-of-the-pack grade this year landing him 15th out of eligible TE's according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Behind Bennett, Zach Miller is finally healthy and starting to produce the results he tantalized Bears fans with in 2 consecutive pre-seasons before succumbing to injuries. He's scored a TD in the last 4 games straight and is developing a rapport with Jay Cutler that bodes well for Miller's future if he can stay on the field. Zach is not a long-term starter at the TE1 spot (his blocking leaves something to be desired), but he is turning into an ideal complementary pass catcher. The only other TE on the roster is Khari Lee; a rookie from Bowie State whom the Bears traded for right after training camp. He has potential to be a Miller-like player with some experience, but only recorded his first NFL catch last week.
Should the Bears try to trade Martellus Bennett after this year?
Back during the days when the Bears were on the verge a fire sale that somehow never actually happened, a lot of names were mentioned as potential trade bait. One name that should have been mentioned more is Martellus Bennett. After suffering the sixth loss of the season, the Bears should consider whether or not moving on from #83 represents a case of addition by subtraction.
For now the combination of a productive, well-rounded veteran (Bennett), a newly-dynamic pass catching threat (Miller) and a developmental rookie with potential (Lee) is a nice mix for the Bears. But the NFL often stands for "not for long" and anything that takes Bennett off the field (injury, trade or holdout) would make Chicago's TE grouping look underpowered very quickly. Miller is a free agent in 2016, so another team could be enticed to throw slightly more money at him than the Bears are willing to part with given his extensive injury history. Either way what looks great group now now might not very soon, so the Bears should have their sights set on reloading. In draft terms there is just one (no so) small problem with that idea.
Dual-threat TEs who can catch and block with equal success are an endangered species. More and more college spread attacks use TEs who are indistinguishable from bigger-bodied WRs who are so common in both college and the NFL these days. I saw multiple college line-ups last year that featured 220-pound WRs and 230-pound TEs. Often times the WRs were taller as well. This often leads to college TEs being glorified slot receivers, with little meaningful impact or experience contributing in the running game.
This is a problem for NFL offenses that want to dominate the time of possession and must run the ball against defenses that stack 8 players near the line of scrimmage to stop them. Having a true dual threat at TE is a beneficial in 3 main ways: 1.) It saves teams a roster spot, as they don't need one for a blocker and one for a pass catcher 2.) It keeps an offense from tipping their playcalling hand to the defense simply by knowing which player is on the field 3.) It allows an offense to operate more effectively in a no-huddle "hurry up" system as they can avoid substitutions that would slow their pace.
Hunter Henry, Tight End, Arkansas
If there's such thing as a modern throwback, Hunter Henry is it. This junior is the Arkansas Razorback's starting TE and his athleticism belies his size. Standing 6'6" and topping 250 pounds he certainly has the physical tools to be a truly complete TE. You don't get on the field at Arkansas without blocking and blocking well. Henry has earned his spot by doing just that. In fact he more than just blocks, he likes to block. He's good at it and that shows up on film. Many of today's college TEs think it is enough to just get to their assigned defender and get in the way. Hunter is not that kind of player.
Henry is technically very sound in a run blocking scheme. He understands levels, angles and where to position himself to get the results he wants. That mental know-how is critically important but it doesn't mean much if you can't seal the deal once you are there. This is where Henry's size and throwback nature combine to make him a rare player at the college level. He works to dominate his defender and is very successful because of it. Even if he loses a matchup, his defender rarely makes the play because of the fight displayed by Hunter in executing his assignment. He can seal off DEs very effectively, but he doesn't stop there. On film I've seen him successfully engage larger interior defenders (DTs) and move them as well. That kind of blocking prowess in a college TE is exceptionally hard to find these days.
If you were only grading him on his blocking, Henry would still be a player worth looking at. But his blocking is only half the story. He has some excellent strengths as a receiver and shows up as a possible difference maker in that role. Some of the same physical gifts that help him win blocking assignments also make him a terrific option in the passing game:
- Large frame with a very large catch radius
- Strong upper body to fight off defenders
- Good speed and decent acceleration off the line for man of his size
- Displays the basics of setting up a defender to get open on routes (head fakes, jab steps, etc.)
- Hand-eye coordination is very natural, is capable of the 1-handed catch
- Not afraid to take a hit over the middle on crossing routes
- Finds the soft spot in a zone well
Watching Hunter catch passes made me think that he must have been an excellent rebounder as a basketball player. He plays with good balance, a wide base and is unafraid of grabbing physically contested throws in traffic. His natural athleticism makes a lot of what he accomplishes in the passing game look almost routine; but it's not. He is a very skilled player who knows how to get himself in a position to win, and he wins regularly.
While the previous few paragraphs may make Henry sound like an unstoppable monster, he's not. In reality he is a good college tight end who will probably declare for this year's draft because of a serious lack of talent at the position. Scarcity always makes for a seller's market and Hunter has skills to capitalize if he chooses to go pro. His success once he gets there will be determined by his ability to overcome the current weaknesses in his game:
- Not overly agile: he's got decent speed and accelerates fairly well, but is by no means a jitterbug
- Route running: being so big he rounds his cuts to try and keep speed through his breaks; that will give pro DBs an advantage against him.
- Strength/frame: he looks like he will be able to easily add up to 10 pounds of muscle and lean out at the same time. I would not be at all surprised to see him playing at a full 260 pounds in the pros.
- Must concentrate on being a more consistent "hands catcher": does let the ball into his body ("trap catching") more often than you'd like
The tight end class doesn't look to be tremendously strong this year and that could cause demand for a player like Henry to rise higher than it normally would in other years. Paired with the fact that the need for another TE is not a top-shelf priority for the Bears right now, I would be surprised to see Henry calling Soldier Field home next season. However as I mentioned before, the landscape for an NFL team can change very quickly. If and when those changes affect the Bears TE corps, a skilled and truly versatile player like Hunter Henry would provide an excellent solution.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Amari Cooper (WR, Raiders) - Cooper has been making noise all season long but on Sunday the Raiders needed a win to get back on track. Cooper answered the bell again, racking up 115 yards on 7 catches while looking just as smooth and polished as always. The Raiders won by 3 and certainly wouldn't have if Cooper wasn't on their roster.
Quinton Dunbar (CB, Washington) - Dunbar's name may not ring any bells, even if you follow the NFL draft closely. The NFL is full of great stories and he's one of them. An undrafted WR out of Florida last year, Dunbar signed on in Washington. Once it became apparent he wouldn't help them as a WR they switched him to CB... at the pro level... in training camp. Amazingly he stuck, and even more amazingly he played tight coverage on Odell Beckham Jr. last week in a huge NFC-East game. His endzone interception (his first as a pro) and the passes he knocked away during the rest of the contest were key plays that fueled his team's victory.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
Andrus Peat (OT, Saints) - Peat has actually been fairly steady for the Saints this year but on Sunday he had every tackle's nightmare scenario to deal with: J.J. Watt. Earlier in the season, before Watt got on his current tear, that might have been OK. However last Sunday was anything but OK for Peat. He notched his lowest grade of the season by far (-4.9) and his QB got mashed all day long in the loss.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Know thy weakness: Nobody is good at everything. Every evaluator is stronger in some areas an weaker in others. Know the positions that you have success looking at and those you miss on more frequently. If you want to grow your player evaluation skillset, seek out people who focus on the positions you are weak on and pick their brains. Better yet, watch some tape with them! You will learn a massive amount in a short period of time.