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Olsen prefers the route that keeps him with Bears

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Toward the end of the 2010 season, when it was clear his statistics would be down in every key category, Bears tight end Greg Olsen provided a glimpse into his character.

During a three-game stretch, he hauled in just three passes for 20 yards. But the fourth-year player didn’t complain about his limited opportunities or question his role.

Instead, he highlighted his growth in other areas and the challenges of becoming a more complete tight end.

‘‘I’ve had a lot of fun growing into the offense,’’ Olsen told me then. ‘‘When you have so many roles, it makes it a lot of fun. Each week in practice, it’s a challenge to try and learn it all.’’

Olsen and I chatted alone for a while just outside the locker room, and one of the topics I didn’t write about then was his future. Olsen is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which is set to pay him a base salary of $900,000 — about $500,000 less than blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. That doesn’t include a $1 million roster bonus Manumaleuna is scheduled to receive as part of a five-year, $15  million contract he signed last offseason that included $6.1  million in guarantees.

‘‘My No. 1 priority is that I stay for here for a long time,’’ Olsen said. ‘‘Hopefully, both sides feel that same way. But I know I do. I want to stay in Chicago.’’

I asked him if his contract status was on his mind at all.

‘‘To say it [isn’t] would be a lie,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not what it’s all about, but it’s definitely a factor. But I’m confident that if I continue to play well and help our team win, then everything will take care of it itself.’’

Olsen insisted he wouldn’t issue any ultimatums to Bears management.

‘‘I’m not going to storm in and say this and that and the other thing,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m going to continue to work hard, try to be consistent and make the plays they ask me to and build on what I’ve done the last couple of years, and things will take care of themselves.’’

But a resolution could be complicated.

The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire March 3. A salary cap hasn’t been established, and the Bears already have a litany of expensive veterans on their tab. In addition, key players are set to hit the open market, including defensive tackle Anthony Adams.

And the team’s decision to sign two unrestricted free agents has created an awkward situation. When the Bears signed perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, they also invested in two other veterans, Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor, who didn’t have breakout seasons. Their younger counterparts, Olsen and Matt Forte, are scheduled to make be paid less than those two in 2011.

Clearly Olsen deserves a raise, but how much?

The NFL’s highest-paid tight end is Vernon Davis, who signed a five-year extension with the San Francisco 49ers that averages $7.35 million per year. Brent Celek signed a six-year extension with the Philadelphia Eagles in December 2009 that averages about $5 million a year.

One positive is that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has completed several deals with Drew Rosenhaus, one of the most prolific agents of NFL players.

But before he engages in any serious talks, Angelo needs to figure out what offensive coordinator Mike Martz plans to do with Olsen.

Martz traditionally hasn’t focused on the tight end in terms of moving the football. Davis, one of the NFL’s best overall athletes, even had a forgettable season under Martz in 2008 when Martz was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator. Olsen’s numbers dipped dramatically from 2009 to 2010; he caught 19 fewer passes and scored three fewer touchdowns.

Martz, though, doesn’t blame Olsen.

‘‘Greg’s numbers in the passing game are not what they could and probably should be for his abilities, but what we’ve done with him is he lines up at the line of scrimmage, and he’s the point of attack,’’ Martz said in January. ‘‘But he’s also lined up at fullback and has been a lead blocker. We line him up at wide receiver. He does so many things for us, and just by being able to do that flexibility, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense, though his numbers wouldn’t indicate that.’’

So the Bears will have to figure out what to do with Olsen. Unlike the situation with Forte, they at least have a promising young player behind Olsen: Kellen Davis.

But in an age when skill players care more about ‘I’ than ‘T-E-A-M,’ Olsen takes the right approach. So, too, it seems, does Davis.

‘‘There are a lot of guys who get a ton of catches a game, and granted everyone wants that,’’ Olsen said. ‘‘But there’s a difference between getting a lot of balls and catching balls that are meaningful. Guys around here understand that. It’s not how many but the ones that you get.’’

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