The Bears can’t seem to find and retain quality tight ends. Regardless of how you feel about the individual trades, the reality is that both Greg Olsen and Martellus Bennett played well on the Bears and then went on to play well on their new teams (in the case of the former, Olsen has proven steady and reliable; in the case of the former, Bennett is on his fifth team in ten years). In the meantime, the Bears have seen the services of players like Khari Lee, Kellen Davis, and Zach Miller. This is not a knock on Miller, who is a fine player when he’s healthy. However, he is not a game-changer.
To evaluate which team in the NFL North has the best tight end position, I used the team rosters as found on each team’s website. While I will look at their stats as receivers, I also want to consider their merits as blockers, as well.
The Packers have Martellus Bennett, representing a rare “big” free agent acquisition for the team. The thing about Bennett is that when he cares, he is one of the best in the game. Even when he is only indifferent, he is still pretty good. When he’s sulking, his disappears from games entirely. Just as a receiving threat, Football Outsiders had him ranked as the 3rd-best tight end in the game in 2016 (DVOA and DYAR alike). Additionally, Bennett is the rare “complete” tight end, capable of blocking both in-line and down-field.
On paper, the same cannot be said of the other veteran tight ends on the Packers: Lance Kendricks was 42nd of 46 per Football Outsiders, and Richard Rodgers was basically just a bit worse than replacement level. Kendricks is a capable, but he is not astonishingly good. However, it’s fair to point out that Kendricks was marginally productive as a receiving threat even in LA. The Packers went out and secured his services, suggesting that they seem something in him, as well. This means that the Packers have a clear #1, a role-player with potential in Kendricks, and another role-player in Rodgers. This is a solid unit, so long as Bennett stays healthy and motivated. On proven ability alone, it has to be considered the best in the division until something on the field proves otherwise.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s problem is that their proven tight end roster basically is Kyle Rudolph. He was tied for 25th among tight ends in “big plays” per Sporting Charts last year, which is a little worse than his yards per reception rank (20th), but better than what Football Outsiders reports for his DVOA (31st) and DYAR (30th). That’s not just a 1-year blip, because his 2015 performance was not fantastic, either. However, at this point it’s only fair to point out that Rudolph typically does poorly in rate metrics, but some of that is because of how much use he sees. He led all tight ends last year for receptions (83) and was 4th in receiving yards (840). He also regularly serves as a blocker. In other words, he’s a workhorse tight end who’s not spectacular. However, if the worst thing that can be said about a tight end is that he’s “reliable” and “productive” without being dynamic, that’s okay.
After Rudolph, though, the Vikings might be relying on Bucky Hodges, their 6th-round pick out of Virginia Tech. Let me be honest—I think Hodges was a steal in the 6th round, and my fear is that he has a solid career ahead of him. He’s a true athlete with all the measurables. However, he’s unproven and was (maybe) the sixth-best TE drafted this year. It’s the lack of depth that causes me to place this unit where I do.
The Lions have the services of Eric Ebron, but Ebron’s ability as a receiving threat (on paper, 6th in DYAR, 9th in DVOA, 9th in yards per reception, and 14th in receptions last year) was up and down—reportedly due to injury. While those are okay relative ranks (and his overall numbers are not terrible), he struggles as a blocker. As the Detroit Free Press put it:
“Eric Ebron never has been known for his blocking prowess -- and perhaps never will.”
Has he developed as a blocker? Yes. Is he good at it yet? Not really. Meanwhile, Darren Fells is one of many former basketball players trying to make it in the NFL at tight end, but Detroit is his third team since coming into the league in 2013, and he has barely cleared 500 yards in his career. After that, Khari Lee (remember him?) might be the most promising tight end on the Lions’ roster. They are clearly the worst-off in the division as far as this position group is concerned.
Compared to these their division rivals, the Bears are in an interesting place. Established veteran Zach Miller had only one more “big play” than Rudolph last year, and he was merely 18th in yards per reception and while Football Outsiders liked him a little bit more (16th DYAR, 12th DVOA), nobody is going to mistake him for Martellus Bennett or Kyle Rudolph as a blocker. This, arguably, is where free agent signing Dion Sims comes in. Sims has decent numbers when used as a receiving threat, but he has primarily been known as a blocker, and he’s good at it.
Finally, there’s Adam Shaheen. The man from Ashland was a surprise second-round pick, and while he has amazing athletic potential, he’s also considered by some to be a bit of a project. One thing that stands out is that the Bears’ tight end group is vastly more well-rounded than most of their divisional opponents. They have a reliable receiving threat, a solid blocker with the potential to do more, and the promise of a gifted rookie.
The Bears are clearly in better shape than the Vikings, as they have greater depth and their rookie is (at least in my opinion) more promising. The Lions are also too reliant on a single player who is not exceptional, and while I would listen to arguments that Ebron’s potential is greater at this point than Rudolph’s, that doesn’t magically produce other players to step in and add versatility.
Thus, I see it breaking down like this: Packers #1, Bears #2, Vikings #3, and Lions #4. Next I’ll turn to running backs, where things get interesting in a hurry.