The New England Patriots accomplishments with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Graham. What Green Bay has done with Jermichael Finley.
The NFL is replete with success stories built around high-achievement tight ends. The Bears saw their tight-end-as-a-receiving-threat structure broken apart under the Mike Martz regime that sent Greg Olsen to Carolina and brought Brandon Manumaleuna to Chicago, replaced by Matt Spaeth.
The result was a gaping void in the Chicago offense that leaves the Bears behind the NFL curve and in franchise difficulty at a time when myriad other needs require immediate attention.
In fact, the Bears may be in no trouble at all at the position once put on the NFL map by Mike Ditka, for a couple of reasons.
First, coach Lovie Smith has staunchly championed the upside of Kellen Davis (although Davis is an unrestricted free agent, so keeping him would seem an offseason priority) and the positives of Spaeth.
I think if you want to feature Kellen Davis, you can do that, Smith said last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. Great size, great in-line blocker, skilled enough of an athlete to be able to move outside and do some things. I really like him.
The eye-rolling that followed Smiths remarks about two tight ends with fewer career catches combined than either Graham or Gronkowski had last season alone is understandable.
But of the seven tight ends among the NFLs top 40 receivers based on catches in 2011 (Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez, Jason Witten in Dallas, Tony Gonzalez with Atlanta, Dustin Keller with the Jets, Brett Celek in Philadelphia), only the teams of Graham, Gronkowski-Hernandez got further than the first round of the playoffs.
And the simple tight-end logic is that if you dont have a Graham or a Gronkowski, you find some other way to win.
The New York Giants did. Pretty well. Twice.
The infatuation with tight ends may be misplaced or at least over-hyped. When something appears successful, the rush to emulate is usually a stampede, whether on the rosters or in the media.
The Giants won this Super Bowl with Jake Ballard as their lead tight end. The Packers won last years with Finley, but Finley was arguably a wide receiver. (He said so himself, insisting that if the Packers were going to slap a franchise tag on him, it should be the wide receiver one, not the far lower one for tight ends.)
The Saints got a combined 83 receptions out of Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas in their Super Bowl season. But like Finley, more than a little factor there was the nature of the offense as well as four significant wide receivers (Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore).
The Pittsburgh Steelers got past Arizona in the 2008 Super Bowl with Heath Miller catching 48 on top of 17 byMatt Spaeth. The Steelers beat the Cardinals for that Lombardi Trophy with a tight end collection of Leonard Pope, Ben Patrick and Jerame Tuman, none of whom caught more than 11 passes.
Put another way: The NFC is the ascendant conference right now and you can win the NFC without a tight end stopping by on his way to Canton.
Looking to the immediate future of the Chicago Bears offense under Mike Tice, there is not likely to be any panic shopping for a tight end. Nor should there be.
Phil Emery stuck gold in Kansas City when the Chiefs picked Tony Moeaki (out of Wheaton Warrenville South) in the third round of the 2010 draft. Moeaki caught 47 passes in 2010 before missing all last season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason. The Bears have two third-rounders this draft if Emery sees another Moeaki.
But Tice built his Minnesota Vikings offense with Scott Linehan (a West Coast descendant) and a tight end in Jim Kleinsasser who was a 272-pound hybrid. Sort of a Manumaleuna with talent.
Tices depth charts listed three tight ends but one was Kleinsasser and the other two were basically just guys. The Bears currently have a possible Kleinsasser in Tyler Clutts, a 260-pound former tight end who can catch and provide escort duty for Matt Forte.
Kleinsassers highest catch total was 46 on a team that was wideout-based with Cris Carter and Randy Moss. With Davis, Spaeth and Clutts, the Bears also have lower-tier options in Kris Adams coming off IR and Andre Smith returning from some time on practice squad.
A Graham or Gronkowski (even an Olsen) in Chicago would be an upgrade. But enough teams are winning without one that any over-reaction toward the position is questionable at best.
And unless Smith was lying about his Kellen Davis thoughts, the Bears dont sound like they consider themselves at the critical stage at tight end.