Were it not for Mike Ditka, the modern archetype for the tight end position might not exist today.
Before he was drafted into the NFL in 1961, the tight end was primarily used as an extra blocker. It didn’t take long for Ditka to shatter that mold, though; he was the first tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Crazier yet, he managed to do so as a rookie and caught 12 touchdown passes to complement that. In his six years as a player in Chicago, Ditka finished with 316 receptions, 4,503 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was a trail-blazer in every sense of the word.
However, I’m going to be honest and admit that Ditka’s playing days — as well as his coaching days — far outdate me. That said, I can’t in good conscience say that my favorite Bears tight end is a player who retired 28 years before I was born.
I’m going to go with a much more recent player as my favorite tight end in Bears history: Greg Olsen.
Had Chicago not foolishly traded him away in 2011 to appease offensive coordinator Mike Martz — who was gone from the organization the following offseason — Olsen could have ended up as one of the most iconic Bears on the offensive side of the ball since the turn of the century.
A 6-foot-6, 254-pound monster who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash coming out of college in 2007, Olsen was ahead of his time for the tight end position. In an era where big-bodied, athletic specimens like Kyle Pitts, Noah Fant, O.J. Howard and Evan Engram get drafted highly in the first round, it’s surprising in retrospect that Olsen fell all the way to the No. 31 overall pick.
Nonetheless, the Bears took a shot on Olsen and used him as a complement to veteran Desmond Clark early on in his career. Clark started every game in both 2007 and 2008, but in the latter season, it was Olsen who took on a larger role in the passing game. By his second season in the NFL, the Miami (FL) alumnus led the Bears in receiving touchdowns and was second in both receptions and receiving yards.
It was Olsen’s third season where he truly began to look the part of a future star. On a Bears offense that didn’t feature much talent at the wide receiver position, the young tight end saw a significant amount of targets go his way in 2009. Leading the team with 60 receptions and 8 touchdowns while finishing third with 612 yards, he began showing the potential that he would later live up to on a larger scale. Olsen placed fourth among NFL tight ends in touchdowns, 10th in receptions and 11th in receiving yards.
Ron Turner served as the Bears’ offensive coordinator through Olsen’s developmental years, but the switch to former Rams head coach Mike Martz in the role saw the tight end’s role decrease drastically in 2010. Martz favored tight ends in a blocking-heavy role, while Olsen thrived more as a big-bodied pass-catcher across the middle of the field. Olsen saw his production drop off significantly as his targets dropped to 70 from 108 the year before.
The Bears retained Martz as their offensive coordinator in 2011, and as a way to dump off a young player who didn’t fit the scheme, traded Olsen to the Panthers for a 2012 third-round pick. The trade saw the Bears, who were already deprived of offensive firepower to begin with, give away their most promising pass-catcher to appease a scheme. Granted, Chicago used the pick they received from that deal to acquire Brandon Marshall the following offseason, but the loss of Olsen was one that would go on to hurt the Bears.
Martz was fired the following offseason, and the Bears were left with the likes of Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth at the tight end position for two seasons before signing Martellus Bennett in 2013. Meanwhile, Olsen developed into one of the best tight ends in the NFL, making three straight Pro Bowls from 2014 to 2016. He topped 1,000 receiving yards in every one of those seasons for Carolina and finished with over 800 yards in both 2012 and 2013.
The Bears ended up getting Pro Bowl play out of Bennett at tight end a few years later, and the pick acquired from the Olsen deal did see them acquire arguably their most talented wide receiver in franchise history. However, the individual optics of trading away a young, physically-gifted tight end in his prime because of a scheme that would soon prove to be archaic are simply inexcusable.
Though his time in Chicago was not as long as it should have been, Olsen was a beacon of light on an offense that had very little firepower. He would go onto fulfill his potential elsewhere, but the big plays he made for the Bears make him my favorite tight end in franchise history.
Now it’s your turn.
Who is your all-time favorite Bears tight end?