It was a mix-and-match kind of year, with the Bears opening 13 of their 16 games last season with two or even three tight ends, with those tight ends ranging from Martellus Bennett to tackle Jermon Bushod.
The Bears and tight end Bennett effectively ended their association sometime during the 2015 season (exact moment unclear). But Bennett, after being rebuffed in an effort to enhance his contract, was inactive for the November win at Green Bay after disagreements over his shared role with Zach Miller, and then inactive for the final four games as the Bears lost their way out of the postseason. Obviously it was far from solely Bennett’s fault, but a relationship with the new John Fox staff, already frayed by his pre-camp stay-away, was done and the other shoe fell when the Bears traded Bennett to New England in March.
Bennett’s exit, while resolving a roster "fit" issue, left a gaping hole in the offense. Bennett finished second only to Alshon Jeffery in receptions with 53, and Bennett delivered 208 catches in 43 games as a Bear. He was an every-down tight end with abilities as an in-line blocker for the run game as well as providing Jay Cutler with a 6-foot-6 receiving target.
Miller rewarded the Bears’ faith in him after spending 2014 on injured reserve, coming back with a career-best 34 catches, five for touchdowns. Miller started four games as a full back as testament to versatility, though his lack of mass (236 pounds) is a liability as a pure run blocker.
And Miller is 31, meaning the Bears enter training camp still looking for another Bennett while needing another impact season from Miller, whose game-winning catch at San Diego was an NFL highlight that was followed by an 87-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the win at St. Louis.
The Bennett exit thrust Miller into the starter’s role, something of a change for a talented receiver but one who had started just five games total in three NFL seasons and none since 2010 with Jacksonville. The Bears re-signed Miller to a two-year deal topping out at $5.5 million.
"There’s not any more added pressure than what I could have put on myself last year as far as when (Bennett) was here," Miller said. "It’s not a different approach from me as far as, I’m going to put as much pressure as I did on myself last year with him here or not."
The organization did not expend a draft choice on the position but was aggressive during the offseason, adding one-time Kansas City Chiefs starter Tony Moeaki in addition to a depth chart already staffed with Rob Housler, Khari Lee and Gannon Sinclair (practice squad) from last season. Moeaki, from Wheaton-Warrenville South, was a No. 1 with the Chiefs as a rookie in 2010 but has struggled with injuries and has bumped around with several different teams since 2012.
Perhaps the most intriguing option in the position group is Greg Scruggs, a former defensive lineman who recorded a sack for the Bears last season but has undergone a position change and at 280 pounds immediately becomes the leading "power" player at the position.
The Bears also went strong into the undrafted after-market, signing Ben Braunecker and Joe Sommers.
TE1: Zach Miller
TE2: Khari Lee
Three questions camp will begin to answer
Can Zach Miller stay healthy?
It is an unpleasant question but given the former Nebraska Cornhusker’s history, a valid one (see: Jeffery, Alshon). The 2015 season was his breakout year not only statistically but also durability wise for a talented player who logged 29 games for Jacksonville in 2009 and 2010, then nothing in injury-riddled years from 2012 to 2014.
Did the Bears give themselves sufficient options for the depth chart this offseason?
Activity does not necessarily equate to productivity, and quantity does not ensure quality. While the Bears were busy at tight end, they do not have proven quality in their combined roster options even at the level that Bennett alone gave them (blocking, receiving).
How will the Bears incorporate Greg Scruggs into their offense?
The former defensive lineman is a physical player by orientation and might be a solid option as a "move" tight end, working in the backfield as de facto full back. The Bears want to run the football even more than the 46 percent they did in 2015, but without Bennett, a mauler of a blocker is a must.