The Bears retired former tight end and coach Mike Ditka's jersey No. 89, and the Chicago offense honored him with a dominant performance in a 45-28 win over the Dallas Cowboys. It seemed appropriate that the offense had to overcome the elements with the temperature in the single digits and a subzero wind chill at Soldier Field.
Unfortunately, we don't have college tape from the late '50s and early '60s, so I watched Ditka highlights from Pitt on YouTube, and his passion for the game is evident in the way he played it. His determination and ability to fight off would-be tacklers after the catch is impressive. He showed no hesitation working the middle of the field and held on to the ball after contact. Although the highlights didn't include blocking, his reputation for tenacity and toughness is well known.
Current Bears tight end Martellus Bennett turned in a workmanlike performance against the team that selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft. Bennett didn't catch more than 33 passes in any of the four seasons he backed up Jason Witten in Dallas. He didn't progress as expected with the Cowboys, and, unlike with Ditka, some questioned Bennett's commitment to getting better, especially in his last year with Dallas. However, he had his best receiving season with the Giants last year and is on pace to best those numbers this year.
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Bennett doesn't show great speed on tape, and he has averaged only 10.7 yards per catch over the course of his career, but his frame, body control and athletic ability made him a tough matchup coming out of Texas A&M. His hands and consistency catching the ball also have improved, so it's no surprise that he has developed into a productive target now that he is playing a bigger role and getting more targets.
For 2014, the top tight end on our board is North Carolina's Eric Ebron, who recently declared for the draft. Only time will tell whether he can stay healthy and realize his considerable potential. There's still reason to be optimistic about him quickly developing into a difference-maker in the NFL because, as with Ditka, Ebron's competitiveness stands out on tape. Ebron makes plays over the middle; he picks up yards after contact; and he's an aggressive drive blocker. He also has the top-end speed and body control to challenge downfield and pick up chunks of yards after the catch.
And, although Bennett played his role well Monday night, Bears' RB Matt Forte shone as a runner and a receiver. Forte rushed for more than 100 yards and caught 7 passes for 73 yards and 1 touchdown. Chicago knew it had a back who could make an impact when it selected Forte in the second round of the 2008 draft because he had shown he could do it at Tulane, where he finished with 102 career catches.
Sims, who transferred from Houston this year, has 213 career catches. Sims has smaller hands and can trap the ball against his frame yet he doesn't drop many passes and is an above-average route runner for the position. Like Forte, he is a patient runner who makes the most of his blocks and accelerates well once he locates a seam. Sims doesn't show much of a second gear when he gets to the second level, but he could move into the Day 2 conversation if he posts a respectable 40 time.
The Bears' big receivers also got in on the fun Monday night with 6-4 230-pound Brandon Marshall and 6-3 216-pound, 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery combining to catch 11 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. I wrote a blog discussing bigger receivers such as Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief after the Oakland-Denver "Monday Night Football" game in late September. Another big target has emerged since that game.
Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin is enjoying a breakout season, and he has caught 14 passes for a total of 331 yards and five touchdowns over the past two games. Against Florida, his strength and speed gave corner Loucheiz Purifoy problems on the outside, which is impressive considering 6-0 Purifoy is on the taller side for a corner and projects as a late-first-, early-second-round pick. Benjamin's ability to box out smaller defenders and break tackles after the catch also gave the Gators all kind of problems when he worked the middle of the field.
Benjamin, who is 6-5 and 234 pounds, is virtually impossible to defend in 50-50 situations, so he doesn't have to be the crispest or most explosive route runner to produce. He has the body control, length and big mitts to come down with 50-50 balls regardless of whom the defense tries to match up with him.