How Good Has Martellus Bennett Been This Season?

Has Martellus Bennett played his way back into the conversation as a top-tier tight end this season?

This year, the early season conversation for who could and should be in the upper echelon of the tight end position has heavily revolved around a few names, notably Rob Gronkowski (of course), Jimmy Graham, Travis KelceGreg Olsen, and after a breakout start to the season, Tyler Eifert.

Yet, curiously absent in all this conversation has been Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. This is despite finishing as the third leading receiving tight end in the league (916 yards), and pulling in more receptions (90) than any other tight end.

And regardless of what little fanfare and attention Bennett has garnered to start the year, through the season's first four games, Bennett has arguably played his way back into the conversation as one of the league's top tight ends.

But the question is, has he done enough so far to enter this top tier and, more importantly, can he keep it up?

Production So Far

Through the first quarter of the season Bennett has caught 21 of 31 targets for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not bad numbers, especially considering that from a fantasy football perspective he's the seventh-ranked tight end in PPR leagues and has accounted for two weeks of TE1-level performances (including last week where he was the top scoring tight end).

A deeper look using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric reveals that this production has resulted, in part, through Bennett's early season efficiency on the field. Bennett currently sits sixth in the league in Reception NEP per target at 0.77, ahead of Kelce, Olsen, Jordan Reed, and Jason Witten.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our signature metric here at numberFire. If you contribute to your team's chances of scoring above expectation you receive a positive NEP, and a negative score when you do the opposite.

So essentially Bennett has contributed as much to his team's success on the field as almost any other tight end in the league. Not bad considering he plays for the 1-3 Chicago Bears.

Jay Cutler Superstar?

Earlier this offseason, Brandon Marshall called Kyle Orton the best quarterback he ever played with. If that isn't a passive-aggressive knock on Cutler -- who Marshall played with both in Denver and then again during his career revival in Chicago -- then I don't know what is.

But it looks like if you ask Bennett, he has a different say in this matter. Recently, the self proclaimed "Black Unicorn" compared his quarterback to -- of all people -- Jesus. No, I'm not kidding.

Always good for a fun sound bite, when asked about his much-maligned quarterback Bennett was quoted as saying: "They threw rocks at Jesus, and Jesus was an excellent guy who did a lot of awesome stuff."

Okay... hyperboles aside, a look at the numbers this season may explain why Bennett made such a lofty comparison.

It's clear that Bennett loves his quarterback, and on the field at least, Cutler loves his tight end right back. If we track Bennett's productivity in terms of Reception NEP per target on a game-by-game basis, we see that Bennett's production directly ties in with when Cutler is on the field.

Martellus Bennett Production

Click here for larger chart

In the two full games Cutler played in, Bennett posted Reception NEP per target marks of 1.38 and 0.77; in the one full game Cutler has missed that figure drops to -0.11.

Beyond his efficiency being down in Cutler's absence, his overall usage was down as well. In Weeks 1 and 4 Bennett averaged 10 targets a game, whereas in the two weeks that Cutler was either injured or completely out, Bennett managed just 6 and 5 targets. Indeed, in 2014 Bennett amassed 130 total targets, third on the team behind only Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte.

It's clear that Bennett's value is directly tied to Cutler, and while I won't necessarily agree with who Bennett has compared Cutler to, I will say that Cutler is definitely Bennett's MVP.

Keeping Pace for the Season

Perhaps what's most impressive for Bennett this season is that even while playing essentially one and a half games without Cutler, Bennett is still on pace for 96 receptions for 804 yards and 8 touchdowns on the year, which would arguably be the best statistical season of his career.

With the coaching staff looking to limit Cutler's mistakes by giving him quick, easy short throws, and with former favorite possession receiver Marshall now with the Jets, expect the staff to continue to dial up Bennett's number as Cutler's surefire security blanket. On that note, Bennett has been incredibly dependable, catching 77.4% of his passes and giving him the second highest catch rate among all tight ends with at least 20 targets this season, behind only Jason Witten.

As the team's best red zone weapon in the passing game and as someone Cutler has learned to trust and lean on, expect Bennett to continue his excellent early season play through the rest of this season.