Tight end in today's NFL is about matchups, formation flexibility and route concepts that target or expose the middle of the field.
You want to beat Cover-2, work over a safety in man-coverage or challenge the secondary on the seam route? Then find a tight end who can win with size, leverage and athletic ability at the point of attack.
That's what the Bears got this past Tuesday when they signed former Giants' tight end Martellus Bennett to a four-year, $20 million deal with $9.2 million guaranteed.
Bennett doesn't have the skill set of the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski or the rare matchup ability of the Saints' Jimmy Graham, but after watching him on tape, he is a three-down player who can produce (and is a fit) in coach Marc Trestman's West Coast offense.
He's a physical, athletic route-runner who also will win in the run game as an in-line blocker.
With the Giants, Bennett caught 55 passes last season for 626 yards and five touchdowns. That's an immediate upgrade for the Bears over the now-departed Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth. With Bennett, the Bears landed a tight end who can run base concepts and give quarterback Jay Cutler a legit target outside of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Think of three routes for Bennett in Trestman's offense: seam, dig (square-in) and the 7 cut (corner). Those put stress on man-coverage and give Bennett the opportunity to win a matchup versus a safety or a linebacker
Thrown at 15 to 20 yards (between the numbers and the hash), the seam is tough on any safety in coverage in the open field or in the red zone. With the Bears in their Posse personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back), and the safety (SS) aligning with an outside shade (Cover-1 technique), Bennett (Y) can press his release up the field, stem to the outside (force the defender to open the hips) and create separation. Working against a single high safety defense (FS), Cutler will have a throwing lane to hit Bennett down the field.
The Hi-Lo series (Hi-Lo Crossers, Hi-Lo Opposite, Hi-Lo Triple-In) is a standard West Coast concept using a dig (Hi) and crosser (Lo) combination. With the Bears in their Ace personnel (two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back), Cutler has a two-level read with Bennett (Y) and Evan Rodriguez (F). This is an inside breaking route where Bennett can use his size to create leverage working back to the middle of the field in a favorable matchup versus a linebacker (S).
The spot route is a corner-curl-flat combination run from a bunch formation. The Bears create a two-back set out of Ace personnel with Rodriguez (F) aligned in the backfield and Marshall (Z) shortening his split to form the bunch look. Drawing the matchup of the strong safety (SS), Bennett will work to the corner route away from the deep middle of the field defender (FS) and give Cutler the opportunity to throw this ball to the up-field shoulder. Again, look at the size and leverage here that will allow Bennett to attack the ball at the highest point.
These are just three basic routes that can be run in Trestman's playbook out of multiple personnel groupings and alignments. The Bears can, and will, use Bennett more creatively as a receiver away from the formation. Think of the backside of a 3x1 formation (slant and fade), out a stack alignment, for one example.
But the point here is simple: Bennett gives the Bears a target they didn't have in 2012. One that provides this team with matchup advantages. And with his ability to block in the run front, this new look offense under Trestman just got better.
That's a victory for the Bears in free agency.
Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety.