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Seller's market for tight ends

Bears need help, but NFL draft pickings slim

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

11:54 PM CST, February 29, 2012

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Bricklayers no longer need apply for the job of Bears tight end.

The Mike Martz idea of a tight end who is good only for moving heavy objects is passe. The new Bears want a tight end who can run, jump and catch — and maybe even dunk a football over a goal post crossbar to celebrate a touchdown.

The Bears might have one of those in Kellen Davis, coach Lovie Smith says. But Davis' contract is up, and he is more of a hope than a lock.

Matt Spaeth, Andre Smith and Kyle Adams, the Bears' other tight ends, are not likely to challenge any of Tony Gonzalez's tight end receiving records.

Last year, Bears tight ends caught 25 passes, the fewest of any team. Only two other teams had fewer than 40 tight end receptions — the Chiefs (35) and Broncos (30). Bears tight ends caught 144 fewer passes than Patriots tight ends.

Tight ends accounted for 7.7 percent of the Bears' receiving yards. That was the lowest percentage in the league, according to STATS.

The Bears, ahem, need more at the position.

Unfortunately, the offerings in the 2012 draft are sparse.

"It's an average to poor group overall," an AFC scouting director said after a combine workout. "You are either going to find an H-back with average skills or a blocker. You might have to manufacture a tight end if you want one. Maybe take a defensive end who's not very good and make him a tight end."

Said an NFC scouting director, "If you need a tight end, you are in trouble."

That is especially true because so many teams are in search of the next Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski.

"The guys that played in the NFL this year — the Jimmy Grahams, the Gronkowskis of the world — have really done our class of tight ends a favor this year," Stanford's Coby Fleener said. "I can't say enough about the guys that have already played, and I hope to one day go play just like that."

Fleener, who went to Joliet Catholic, is the top tight end prospect in the draft and is likely to be the only one picked in the first round.

"He's like Graham and those guys," an NFC scouting director said. "He's going to be the hot item. Smart kid, passes all the interview stuff. Excellent hands."

Jim Harbaugh doesn't need a tight end, but the 49ers coach sounds as if he would love to draft Fleener, whom he coached at Stanford.

"Fleener is like some of the top pass-catching guys in the NFL," he said. "He has the license and the ability to be as good as any of those guys, the (Todd) Heaps, the Grahams. He has multiple talents. He can run, he has a big body, is competitive for the football in the air. Very smart, wired with the right fortitude. He was one of my favorite kids at Stanford."

As for the prospects after Fleener, there is less praise and more skepticism.

Orson Charles of Georgia and Dwayne Allen of Clemson are considered the next best, and both are projected to go in the second round.

Charles did not do most of the drills at the combine, but he drew quite a bit of attention by bench pressing 225 pounds 35 times. What's interesting about that is he is perceived as more of a receiving than blocking tight end. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, he is more suited to play H-back than tight end.

Allen ran a disappointing 4.89 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, but he doesn't play slow, according to scouts. Allen might be the best combination blocking/receiving tight end in the draft.

Two tight ends generated a lot of combine buzz over the weekend and probably moved up on draft boards.

James Hanna of Oklahoma had been considered a late-round choice at best but might go higher after running a 4.49 40 and vertical jumping 36½ inches. He has the kind of athleticism teams are looking for at the position.

The other player who came out of nowhere was Drake Dunsmore of Northwestern. The son of former Bears tight end Pat Dunsmore was never a standout in college in part because he was hurt quite a bit. But he ran a 4.64 40 and vertical jumped 35½ inches.

At 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, Dunsmore is smaller than NFL teams want their tight ends to be. But he now is likely to be drafted, and he could find a role in the right system.

It's a seller's market for tight ends, and many of the hopeful buyers will have to take what they can get.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei