Arkush: Tight end depth a must for Bears

Competition for backup spots is fierce

Chicago Bears tight end Fendi Onobun(84) looks around during an NFL football practice in Lake Forest, Ill., Tuesday, May 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Chicago Bears tight end Fendi Onobun(84) looks around during an NFL football practice in Lake Forest, Ill., Tuesday, May 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) — Nam Y. Huh

In case you haven’t heard by now, Martellus Bennett and Lamarr Houston had a better–than–average practice field fight at Tuesday’s OTA.

Beyond adding a little spice to an otherwise tedious right of summer, it will prove to be much ado about nothing, but it did shine a spotlight on an area of concern for the 2014 Chicago Bears. What if something happens to Bennett?

It is reasonable to assume the Bears will keep at least two tight ends behind Bennett. Competing for those spots are Dante Rosario, who backed up Bennett last year after the Bears acquired him in a trade with the Cowboys the Tuesday before the opening game of the season.

Fendi Onobun, who was a training camp sensation before spending last season on the Bears practice squad, and veteran free agent acquisitions Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan.

One cause for concern is that, while Rosario played in 15 games last year, he was targeted just four times and caught just one pass, and at 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, he’s known more for his pass catching than blocking skills.

Rosario told me after practice that he believes his blocking is underrated.

“When you look at some of us, you might say oh, receiving tight ends, but I’ve been put in positions where I’ve had to block from the line, from the backfield at the fullback position, out wide as a receiver and it’s definitely something that I not only pride myself on but I think I’ve grown into that role.”

Perhaps. But what stood out about Rosario at practice Tuesday was that he had a great day catching the ball, as did Miller.

Miller is a former college quarterback and tight end who was drafted by Jacksonville in the sixth round in 2009 and played three years before spending 2012 on injured reserve. He then signed with Tampa as a free agent in 2013 before getting cut at the end of training camp.

At 6-5 and 236 pounds, he’s extremely athletic and anxious to get back in the league after sitting out last year. But he’s also conscious of his reputation as more a receiver than blocker, and very aware that the competition for a roster spot will be intense.

“Everybody does something well. I’ve never seen anybody strength-wise like Mulligan. You know Fendi’s super athletic, Dante’s smart and athletic. We’ve got a great group. Obviously, Marty’s the whole package and I just want to fit in where I can.”

Mulligan is 6-4, 267 pounds and the opposite of Rosario and Miller. He is pretty much stuck with the tag “blocking tight end.”

Of the four backups, it is Onobun who is the closest to Bennett in size (6-6, 260 pounds), speed and all-around athleticism and strength. What kept him off the roster last year was too many dropped passes and the occasional blown assignment.

How much Onobun learned on the practice squad will dictate whether or not he is the clear No. 2 this year, or an ex-Bear. It is unlikely there is any in between for him.

If Onobun isn’t ready, will the Bears carry a blocker, Mulligan, and a pass catcher, either Rosario or Miller? That is not an ideal answer.

How well Rosario, Miller and Onobun block in training camp and the preseason will dictate the solution.

While Miller and Rosario both spoke of Onobun’s gifts in almost reverent terms, Rosario like Miller knows the competition is too close to call right now and what it would mean to him to succeed.

“No one knows at this point. Anything can happen from here and you’ve still got to go through training camp and all the preseason games and that’s the attitude that everyone’s been taking," Rosario said. "Nobody knows where anyone is at. Marty has pretty much solidified himself as the No. 1 guy and the rest of us, we’re just working hard to be able to make it on this team because I’m telling you, it’s going to be an exciting year for this Bears team.”

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