Last season, Week 10.
The Chicago Bears line up for a 3rd and inches play from the Minnesota Vikings’ 19-yard line. The offense lines up in a goal-line package: three tight ends, one running back, one wide receiver and QB Jay Cutler under center. The defense stacks the box, with all but one player within a few yards of the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Cutler turns and fakes an up-the-middle handoff to RB Matt Forte. The entire defense shifts forward to stop the run. At the same time, TE Kellen Davis slips from the line and sprints down the seam. Cutler finds his big pass catcher wide open at the five-yard line. Davis rumbles in for a fourth-quarter, game-clinching score.
Typically, it’s inexcusable for a defense to leave a player wide open down the field. Yet why would the Vikings have assumed the play was going to Davis, considering he hadn’t caught a single pass up to that point in the season? It’s no surprise the unit was burned as badly as it was.
Davis did such a good job on that play that coordinator Mike Martz rewarded him by not throwing a single pass his way the rest of the regular season. Instead, Martz built game plans around backup tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who proved game after game how ineffective he was not only as a pass catcher, but also as a run blocker.
The Bears signed Manumaleuna this past offseason to give Martz the big blocking tight end he covets in his offense. Chicago awarded him a five-year deal, due in part to his previous experience playing for Martz in St. Louis. To the team’s dismay, the 30-year-old proved to be nothing short of a complete bust.
Multiple times last year, Manumaleuna was asked to be the primary blocker on short yardage runs. For the vast majority of those plays, he failed to accomplish what was asked of him. The team’s goal-line issues for most of last season can be attributed in large part to Manumaleuna’s inability to clear the way for his running back.
TE Kellen Davis
When the lockout ends, the organization will have to decide whether it’s worth keeping him on the roster. Consider the terms of his contract: he was paid more than $6 million last season, is due $2.95 million in 2011 and more than $2 million per year the following three seasons. That’s a lot of cap space.
When the team considers how well Davis has developed during his two years in the league, the decision to let Manumaleuna walk shouldn’t be a hard one. Davis, a former fifth-round pick, will be entering his third NFL season in 2011. He caught nine passes for 75 yards and 3 TDs his rookie season, yet was relegated to third-string duty with the addition of Manumaleuna last year. The 6-7, 262 pounder was mostly used in short-yardage and three-tight-end sets.
Yet he’s excelled in the few opportunities he’s had to make an impact on the offense. He’s amassed just 10 catches in his two regular seasons of work, but four of those went for touchdowns. And in last year’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Davis caught two passes for 42 yards and another score. That’s 30 points off just 12 receptions. That’s the definition of efficiency.
Those numbers are bit skewed when we take into consideration his lack of use, and as such, teams ignoring him while he’s on the field. He’s been used as a secret weapon, one that only comes out every blue moon. Yet when called into duty, Davis has always performed well. There’s no reason to think, given enough opportunities, he can’t turn into a very productive No. 2 tight end.
One thing is for sure: Davis can’t be any worse in the run game than Manumaleuna was last year. It makes sense to let Manumaleuna, as well as his hefty contract, find a new place to work next season and let Davis show what he can do. In a two-tight-end set with Greg Olsen on the opposite side, opposing defenses would be completely outmatched with those two behemoths each occupying a seam. With his height, Davis could out jump every safety in the NFL. And around the goal line, he’s money in the bank.
The problem with letting go of Manumaleuna is similar to that of running back Chester Taylor, who also severely underperformed last season after signing a big free agent contract. The Bears frontloaded both of their deals and will be desperate to make sure that money doesn’t go to waste. Yet paying nearly $3 million to Manumaleuna next year, when they could pay a fraction of that to Davis, is just throwing good money after bad. That $3 million could be used to sign a top-tier player at a true position of need, like linebacker, guard or wide receiver.
Davis has plenty of upside and is as cheap as they come. 2011 should be the year the Bears find out how high his ceiling goes.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider