Tight ends that are used all over the field were once purely a novelty.
Today’s modern football H-back and or hybrid receiver and blocker, was once just a much lighter offensive lineman in deployment. Mike Ditka helped pioneer this movement towards diversifying tight ends but he was almost purely alone in exercise.
In 1961, two tight ends - Ditka and Washington’s Fred Dugan - had more than 50 receptions. Ditka, was of course the only man to eclipse 1,000 yards and double digit scores. That was production simply no one else possessed.
In 2016, 50 receptions is merely a benchmark for “good” but not necessarily “special.” This past year, 20 tight ends had 50 or more receptions. Stars such as the Panthers’ Greg Olsen, the Ravens’ Dennis Pitta, or the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce all had 80 plus catches - wide receiver numbers.
The 21st century NFL pushes this revolution. Whether you’re a superstar or fit into more of a niche role, quality tight ends are seen as crucial keys to success for any team. And it’s where the Bears have a problem they can fix with free agency upcoming.
It would benefit the Bears to both sign and draft a tight end to form a three-headed monster with the incumbent and solid but aging, Zach Miller. Some of the league’s best offense’s such as New England or Atlanta (what a coincidence, didn’t they play in a big game, recently?) all apply multiple tight ends in many different places.
From the draft perspective, the 2017 class is too deep and talented - even after stalwarts such as Alabama’s O.J. Howard or Miami’s David Njoku - to pass on a young gun to develop in later rounds.
To build on an April addition, adding a veteran you can trust in the meantime on the open market behind your number one would be resourceful under the right means.
Let’s first diagnose why the Bears should look at bolstering their tight end group.
Make no mistake, Miller has been a fine piece in Chicago as the Bears’ starter. When head coach John Fox and company evidently grew tired of Martellus Bennet’s act in 2015 before trading him in the 2016 offseason, they relied on Miller to step into the huge void. Needless to say, he’s performed admirably.
In the 25 games Miller’s played under Fox, he has 81 receptions, 925 yards, and nine touchdowns. A safety valve for anyone under center for Chicago.
Here’s the rub.
Miller has never enjoyed a season above 500 yards receiving, nor has he ever caught more than 50 passes. Given previous health issues along with a recent Lisfranc injury this past November, it’s unlikely the Bears can ever reliably expect higher production from him. Factor in his age at 32-years-old with his prime years in the rear-view mirror and you see the same story.
Obviously, you don’t jettison Miller for that, though.
Instead, you just add a veteran and youth to use, develop, and add new dimensions to the Bears offense. In the here and now, it would take pressure off of Bears quarterbacks, allow the offensive staff to draw up some diverse play design, and have the future in mind at tight end for the organization. Killing many birds with one stone.
In that light, don’t discount Daniel Brown playing a factor who came on well to an extent after Miller’s injury last season, as well.
Regardless, here’s a look at some intriguing free agent options at tight end for general manager Ryan Pace to pick up the phone for:
1. Jack Doyle, Indianapolis Colts, Unrestricted
Since the Colts were always unlikely to use their franchise tag on a tight end and pay Doyle $10 million next season, the 26-year-old breakout will be up for bidding this week, as he attempts to gauge his value and perhaps find a new home.
No one, even Doyle, really knows how much he’s worth either. This past season was the first of his career above 50 receptions and he eclipsed previous marks of his own in both yards and touchdowns too
Is he an ascending late-blooming player who can spot behind a guy like Miller and or take over for a short period?
Or, will he be overvalued on a market that will throw stupid amounts of money around? No one can be sure.
What is for certain is that when you evaluate just how Doyle became more of a household name - extremely relatively speaking - you see what he brings to the table is incredibly valuable.
Doyle came out of nowhere to start 2016, having fantasy football players asking “who?” when he scored two touchdowns against the Lions - including the game winner - to open the Colts’ campaign. Dwayne Allen, who may yet still be a better overall player than Doyle, was seen as Indianapolis’c primary lightning rod at tight end in the preseason. Yet over time, head coach Chuck Pagano and now let go offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton recognized their number two’s all-around skill set after that initial outbreak and began to find ways to use him better.
Where Doyle most excels is as a blocker. You can line him up in-line and expect him to come through with his assignment time after time as he uses his natural leverage, hands, and size at 6-foot-6, 267 pounds very well.
Or, you can even line him up in the backfield as an H-back or fullback to be the lead blocker for your running back. This is but one example.
Jack Doyle’s value is best as a lead-blocking FB. Athletic here Gives you run game diversity out of 2 TE. Great illustration (FB 84) pic.twitter.com/fR3zmovz2i— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) March 3, 2017
It’s not often you see a tight end like Doyle neutralize a linebacker like that. Athleticism and instinct pay dividends, who knew?
Keep in mind, the formation the Colts use on the above play is out of a double tight end set in conjunction with Allen. That’s an aspect the Bears would love to do with Miller.
Doyle is also a natural route runner who comes out of his breaks cleanly, knows where to find openings in a defense’s zone coverage, and has sharp body control. Of course when the ball comes his way, he has solid hands too.
If Doyle indeed is in fact a late bloomer, he’s the perfect option for the Bears at tight end in free agency barring the price being right.
And oh, about that late bloomer descriptor? The Pace trademark of finding guys with upside arises yet again. Doyle fits that mold for the Bears.
Reports have Doyle currently being valued around $7 million per season, but that’s just more agent speak than anything. He may always get that value in the Wild West this market could become, though. In the end, expect him to zero in on a deal of three to four years with an average of $5 to $8 million per year. Where the Bears benefit in potential negotiations with Doyle is that new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni was once Doyle’s offensive coordinator in his freshman year at Western Kentucky.
The relationship between the two could both work out for the Bears in fit as well as a friendly price tag for the team. A match made in heaven.
2. Jermaine Gresham, Arizona Cardinals, Unrestricted
The Bears were one of Gresham’s top rumored suitors last offseason, among the Jets and a third unnamed team. But he stiff-armed them all to stay in Arizona on a one-year $3.5 million dollar deal - turning down $23 million over four seasons in the process - citing “overall happiness and a chance to win” with the Cardinals.
That of course, is the second time he’s elected to sign in Arizona on a one-year short team contract, following his tenure with the Bengals from 2010 to 2014. So this could be a measure of familiarity as well as comfort in surroundings for the veteran.
Does the 28-year-old feel the same way this year?
Following an appearance in the 2016 NFC Championship Game, Arizona could be on downturn after a disappointing 7-8-1 season. On defense, players such as Tony Jefferson and Calais Campbell - two integral pieces to head coach Bruce Arians’ era - are likely to leave. On offense, Quarterback Carson Palmer had an up-and-down season and who knows how much longer he’ll last at 37-years-old. Not necessarily attractive prospects.
Gresham, actually experienced an uptick in production in 2016 with 37 receptions, 391 yards, and two touchdowns after spurning those several teams last year. There is no doubt that he’s still a hot commodity in an overall scarce tight end market. For him, now would be the time to cash in the “NFL” (Not For Long) while he find a situation on the rise.
Remember too that Gresham is a seasoned tight end that once had a bright future in Cincinnati. That was before the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert. Couple that with a back injury that he underwent surgery for in 2015, and the writing was on the wall.
Since then in Arizona it’s been a slow grind on occasion. Yet the more time passes, the more you see the solid Gresham of old that caught at least 50 passes in four of five seasons with Cincinnati. It’s seen in flashes.
Gresham is all likelihood past his career peak and is a lesser blocker than Doyle, but he would no doubt represent an solid addition to the Bears tight end room.
Interestingly enough, even the Cardinals now value Gresham as they may see their situation isn’t as appealing as it was a year ago. Recent reports have them maintaining he’s a priority amongst their tight cap situation and would be willing to offer him $6 million per season.
There’s no doubt the Bears can match that price tag sell Gresham in other aspects of their rising roster. What will probably be the primary focal point here is who offers him the most security (guaranteed money) as an older player on maybe the last contract of his career.
Keep an eye out on what Doyle receives if he doesn’t end up in Chicago. His price tag could set Gresham’s bench mark.
Now you may be wondering where fellow pending unrestricted free agent Bennett is on this list. To that I say: Do you really believe the Bears want to re-sign a 30-year-old high priced player they jettisoned only a season ago for “culture?” I didn’t think so.
Still, by every respect, while this isn’t a dazzling tight end market, it does offer the Bears some intriguing lanes to explore. This Spring is the perfect opportunity to bolster this position both now and in the future.
In the words of Billy Madison’s childhood enemies: “(O’) Doyle Rules!”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey you can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.