Warning: I’m about to overreact to two preseason games. Feel yourself lose control, and join me.
Although it’s often skewed and misleading, the portion of the each preseason game that matters for fake football is the one where both the first team offenses and defenses are on the field. In Week 1, that was often only a series or two, and then in Week 2 it was the first quarter, and usually at least one series into the second quarter. Now as Week 3 begins tomorrow, we’ll see the starters play well into the third quarter, with backups sometimes seeing the field for just the fourth.
So far then, our sample size to measure anything of meaning in the preseason is inherently small. But in two instances with two tight ends who are being leaned on to deliver varying degrees of value (one a quality late-rounder, and the other a high ceiling sleeper), an alarming early trend has emerged, especially with both learning new offenses.
Namely, they haven’t even had a chance to make a play yet, and they’ve rarely been targeted. Ruh roh?
Martellus Bennett is the first and primary concern. In two preseason games, we’re still waiting on Bennett’s first catch, and even his first target as a Bear in Marc Trestman’s new offense. With the Giants last year Bennett was often underused, but he was still targeted 90 times — a fair and adequate pace overall — and he turned that into 626 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
What’s particularly concerning is that in this new offensive scheme from Trestman and coordinator Aaron Kromer, Bennett has been on the field a fair bit considering we’re still in the middle of meaningless August football. Obviously, the coaching staff wants to experiment with the new playbook against live competition in what’s at least a true NFL environment, which has led to Bennett being on the field for 26 snaps. Yet still, he hasn’t been targeted once.
Trestman told the Chicago Sun-Times (via Fantasy FB Pundit) that several plays designed to focus on Bennett were called against the Chargers last week, but the coverage forced Jay Cutler to look elsewhere. Kromer echoed that, essentially saying Bennett was football’ed.
“It has to do with, what is our offense asking us to do? We’ll call a play that Marshall is the primary on one and that Martellus Bennett is the primary on the next. If that’s covered by coverage, then he’ll throw it to somebody else. And that’s football.”
Fair enough, Aaron, but you’re not getting us that easily. The uncertainty around Bennett in a new offense is magnified when combined with Cutler’s disdain for throwing anywhere in the general airspace of a tight end.
When Cutler first arrived in Chicago in 2009, his tight end usage was typical. That year, Greg Olsen was targeted 108 times (still a career high), and he caught 60 of those calls for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. It was a fine season in reality football, and more importantly for us, a fine season in fantasy football which adds up to 109.2 fantasy points.
But then the following year (his final one with the Bears), Olsen’s targets and production fell of dramatically. He was targeted just 69 times, which then led to 404 yards and 41 receptions. He fell from being a consistent TE1, to only a borderline matchup play. When Olsen left the same neglect continued, but this time it was Kellen Davis. He was targeted only 34 times in 2011, and then 44 this past season, which translated into a combined 435 yards.
Bennett’s ADP right now reflects the uncertainty around his usage. The compiled ADP data from several sources at FantasyPros shows him at 121st overall, and 13th at his position. With Brandon Marshall expected to suck back looks as per usual, Alshon Jeffery emerging, and Matt Forte drawing more short, quick-strike throws out of the backfield, Bennett could be marginalized. His 10th round price then is about right, though hopes of a higher ceiling and value as the ever elusive late-round tight end may be wrong. Stream with care.
Then there’s Rob Housler, an even deeper deep sleeper who was pushed on you by this idiot back in May. Whereas fellow tight end super sleeper Jordan Cameron caught two touchdown passes in Week 2 of the preseason, Housler is still waiting on his first catch.
He’s been on the field a little longer than Bennett, playing in 32 snaps, yet he’s been targeted only once. Despite Carson Palmer’s fondness for tight ends (Brandon Myers finished fourth among tight ends with 806 receiving yards last year in Oakland), Bruce Arians’ vertical offense approaches the position with much more indifference. Combined last year in Indianapolis, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen finished with 114 targets, a modest pace.
But let’s pump the brakes a little on this overreaction theater. Heath Miller averaged 602.4 yards per season under Arians in Pittsburgh, though his true breakout came in 2012 when Todd Haley directed many more balls at his hands and body (a career high 816 yards). Historically, Arians has lined up tight ends throughout the formation, from traditionally in-line to the slot and backfield. In Pittsburgh, at times that led to a pronounced presence in space for Miller, who received up to 49 percent of his targets as the standard, over-sized security blanket up the middle.
The overall lesson here is one that reaches beyond two preseason games: if you’re waiting on tight ends, be flexible, and don’t get attached to anyone. Production from the likes of Bennett, Housler, and those typically around them in drafts (think Brandon Pettigrew and Fred Davis) will vary wildly. The solution is to have two Bennetts or two Houslers, and slide them in and out depending on the matchup.