NDIANAPOLIS — The Bears refused to commit to Brandon Marshall at last year’s NFL Scouting Combine. Two weeks later, they had an agreement to trade him.
After GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox gave tight end Martellus Bennett the same public silent treatment Wednesday — saying merely that he was under contract for the upcoming season — the Orange Dinosaur’s Bears career seems like it could be careening toward extinction.
The market for replacements is thin.
The Bears moved decisively last year after dealing Marshall, signing slot Eddie Royal and drafting No. 7 overall pick Kevin White. They’ll find their tight end options less clear-cut this offseason, though, both in the draft and free agency.
They quickly booked a NFL Scouting Combine meeting with former Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry, considered the only potential late first-rounder in this year’s draft —but, certainly, not ticketed to go as high as the Bears’ No. 11 pick.
The 6-5, 253-pounder caught 51 passes for 739 yards before declaring after his junior season. Like Bennett, the pastor’s son prides himself in both blocking and catching.
“I’m not just a first-down guy,” said Henry, former high school wideout who tries to emulate the Cowboys’ Jason Witten. “I’m not just a third down guy. I can play all three downs. It’s a big part of the NFL. That’s why I believe I’m worthy.”
Few others in the draft class are. Stanford’s Austin Hooper, South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams, Ohio State’s Nick Vanett and Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee top the list of mid-round candidates.
“I take a look at teams who release tight ends, teams that let other guys go — not just cut them, but allow them to hit the free agent market,” said Hooper, who played only two full seasons for the Cardinal.
Northwestern “superback” Dan Vitale bench pressed a freakish 30 times this week —better than all but four offensive linemen — but he profiles as a versatile H-back more than an in-line tight end. Nonetheless, the Bears spoke to him both at the Combine and Senior Bowl.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said that “everyone’s looking for a Heath Miller,” but the 33-year-old, who retired from the Steelers this month, is from a different era.
“We don’t get a whole lot of pure tight ends out of college football anymore,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.
Spread offense concepts permeate the college game — except at places like Stanford and Arkansas, where Henry said, the Razorbacks’ pro-style playbook and terminology eased his NFL transition.
“You’ve got to factor in the development,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. “It’s going to take them a little longer to develop, especially in the run game, because they’re not asked to do it as much.
“There’s some things you have to look at differently now than you had to 10 years ago, because the college game is quite a bit different than the game we play — especially at the line of scrimmage.”
Free agency provides a quicker fix, but that current class lacks sizzle, presuming aging Hall of Famer Antonio Gates stays with the Chargers. His teammate, Ladarius Green, is an unrestricted free agent, as are the Colts’ Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. The Rams cut Jared Cook two weeks ago.
The Bears want their own free agent, Zach Miller, to return. Pace said the Bears were negotiating with Miller — who had 34 catches for 439 yards and five scores in his age 31 season — but he figures to talk to other teams.
“What happens at this stage in the game is you understand the reality that a lot of times, these guys have to hit the open market to set their value,” Pace said.
If Miller finds a better offer elsewhere and the team decides to move Bennett, the Bears will discover something more daunting than unearthing a new tight end:
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