Continuing with our position-by-position breakdowns as we close in on being a week away from the first practice of the summer at Olivet Nazarene University, we focus on the tight ends.
Projected starter: Desmond Clark, 6-3, 249, 11th season, Wake Forest OR Greg Olsen, 6-5, 255, 3rd season, Miami
Kellen Davis 6-7, 262, 2nd season, Michigan State
Michael Gaines 6-2, 267, 6th season, Central Florida
Fontel Mines 6-4, 244, 1st season, Virginia
Projected depth chart
Clark or Olsen, Gaines, Davis
2009 salary cap numbers
Desmond Clark $2,173,946
Kellen Davis $432,188
Michael Gaines $1,162,600
Fontel Mines $315,200
Greg Olsen $1,501,450
Number of tight ends on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 3
Projected number of tight ends on 2009 roster at start of the season: 3 or 4
The skinny: Olsen has been Jay Cutler's unofficial sightseeing partner in his introduction to Chicago and he might just become his best friend on the field. The former first-round draft pick was second behind only running back Matt Forte on the team in receptions and led the club with five touchdown catches, scoring three of them in the final four weeks of the year when he had 20 of his 54 catches. That kind of production down the stretch--five grabs a game--is closer to what the Bears have in mind for this season. His 54 catches in 2008 ranked 10th among tight ends in the league and to join the elite at the position he'll need to add 20. He's also going to have to improve on his yards per catch. Of the 10 tight ends with more grabs than Olsen, eight had a greater YPC than his of 10.6. The only players below Olsen were Washington's Chris Cooley (83 catches, 10.2 YPC) and Tennessee's Bo Scaife (58 catches, 9.7 YPC). If you recall, Scaife caught 10 passes vs. the Bears on Nov. 9.
But Olsen is hardly the only part of the show. Clark made 16 starts last season while Olsen had seven, all coming when the offense opened in a double tight end formation. Clark is a superior run blocker and that fact alone may keep him in the starting lineup. He remains a productive outlet receiver but isn't going to stretch the defense and create the kind of matchup problems that Olsen presents vs. linebackers and defensive backs. That is what becomes interesting, how do teams choose to cover Olsen? We broke down playing time at the position earlier in the offseason and even though Clark was the full-time starter it didn't make anything more than a marginal difference. He was on the field 78.16 percent of the time compared to 76.68 for Olsen.
What's unknown is how it will shake out behind Clark and Olsen. Gaines was signed to add a bigger, blocking body to the mix after the Bears found out they missed John Gilmore, who left for Tampa Bay via free agency following the 2007 season. It's not like Gilmore was real active--he played 14 percent of the time that season--but he filled a critical role and Davis certainly didn't step forward to fill that void during his rookie season. Neither Davis nor Gaines is a lock to make the 53-man roster. Davis carries draft status but the Bears have slowly been moving away from protecting all of their picks no matter how unproven they are. He's got a terrific frame but might not be cut out to be a blocker, which was spelled out to him as the quickest way to get on the field last season. Gaines is viewed as a blocker but has some receiving skills too. Lovie Smith mentioned the possibility of moving him around a little bit when he made a sales pitch to the free agent, referencing the opportunity to line up in the backfield in certain instances. We'll see how that actually pans out. If the team keeps only one fullback--which is expected--Gaines would provide some versatility. He could get them through a game at fullback, and that's going to help his chances. Mines has been a practice squad veteran and the converted wide receiver from Virginia has improved each season. His best chance might be getting on tape in preseason and earning a shot in another city as he will face long odds to jump ahead of Gaines and Davis.
The upside: Olsen misses out on the expenses-paid trip to Hawaii but is Pro Bowl-bound just the same with the game being played in Miami the weekend before Super Bowl XLIV. Clark remains a durable performer and steady addition to the run game. At 32, he probably takes as much pride in his ability to remain healthy as anything else. He hasn't missed a game the last four seasons and has been held out of only two in six years with the team. Davis or Gaines steps forward to fill a small role. A highly productive season could provide a boost for tight ends coach Rob Boras, an original member of Smith's staff. He has a background as an offensive line coach and that is a natural progression for many tight ends coaches, including Pat Flaherty, the ex-Bears tight ends coach who has done well for himself as the line coach of the New York Giants.
The downside: Injuries strike. It's considered the most injured position in the league and that's because tight ends have to be physical as participants in run blocking and have to run downfield in the passing game where their body is exposed to faster, hard-hitting defensive backs. Neither Davis nor Gaines manages to fill a niche.
On the hot seat: Davis? It's tough to put someone on the hot seat here and it's also difficult to say a fifth-round pick is on the hot seat because expectations for players in that round simply aren't overwhelming. He'll have to be better to make the team, though.
Final thought: The Bears probably don't have their No. 1 wide receiver for this season so they might as well take advantage of their next best option. Devin Hester will play a huge role in the passing game but offensive coordinator Ron Turner might as well work to create more matchup opportunities for Olsen.
Offensive line http://blogs.suntimes.com/bears/2009/07/11_days_to_camp_newcomer_pace.html