The expectations before the start of the 2015 season for Green Bay Packers tight end Richard Rodgers were high. Toward the end of his rookie campaign in 2014, Rodgers began to incorporate himself into the offense, making some key receptions in the Packers’ run up to the post-season. While Rodgers saw an expanded role in 2015, most fans couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed with the way that things actually played out, however. The fireworks of the NFL Play of the Year aside, Rodgers never emerged as a consistent threat for the offense.
Rodgers averaged just shy of 32 receiving yards per game (and only 28 yards per game without the Hail Mary play against the Lions). With that marker of offensive contribution, Rodgers ranked toward the bottom of starting tight ends in the league.
This provoked a lot of talk throughout Packerland. Many began speaking of tight end as the Packers’ biggest area of need leading into the 2016 season. After 2015 showcased some major struggles in the passing game, the disappointment of Rodgers’ modest numbers were only amplified. The lack of any significant production from any other tight ends on the roster added to the urgency.
It came as little surprise, therefore, that the Packers brought in and eventually signed ex-St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook. Of course, a free agent signing is always big news in Green Bay due to the rarity of the phenomenon, but it wasn’t surprising that the Packers looked to bolster this position as opposed to others. If Ted Thompson was actually going to sign someone from outside the organization, it made sense that he went with a tight end.
On paper, Jared Cook is the more exciting player. He’s faster and more athletic, capable of exploding up the seam and wracking up yardage. In short, he’s so many things that Richard Rodgers is not. If Cook is explosive, Rodgers is the exact opposite. Rodgers finished the season with just 8.8 yards per reception, tying him for 68th among NFL tight ends in 2015. If you remove the Detroit Hail Mary, Rodgers finished with just 7.9 yards per reception. That would have dropped him to 79th among all tight ends. Comparatively, Jared Cook finished with 12.3 yards per reception, good for 24th among all tight ends.
However, while it’s easy to get distracted by the newer, faster purchase, Rodgers should still play a major role with the team. He is best suited for short yardage situations, particularly in the red zone where his sure hands, big frame, and satisfactory leaping ability really shine. This is what Rodgers does best, and it shouldn’t be undervalued. You can’t win football games if you can’t execute in the red zone. Richard Rodgers’ presence on the field greatly increases the offense’s chances of doing just that.
So while the Jared Cook hype train is rolling, let’s not forget to give Richard Rodgers his due. The big play is not the only marker for significant contribution in this offense. Richard Rodgers is going to be the go-to tight end working in short yardage situations, which are some of the most important plays in the NFL. The cliche is true. It’s a game of inches.
Sure Cook is fast, but Rodgers finished the year with 8 receiving TDs, good enough for 5th highest in the league. That’s a significant statistic that is being lost in the bright lights of the Cook deal. Cook has only 8 receiving touchdowns in his last 3 full seasons, with 0 in 2015. And yet there is little to no talk of Richard Rodgers, the Endzone Monster. He caught only 3 TDs less than Rob Gronkowski, and with around 35 fewer targets. That’s impressive.
This is what makes the Cook deal so great. The Packers have not brought in another tight end to replace Rodgers. Fans expecting Cook to post significant numbers in Green Bay will likely be disappointed. The signing is an attempt to improve the offense as a whole. If Cook steps in and plays his role as expected, it will only aid Rodgers in fulfilling his.
He may never be a vertical threat, but the Cook deal means that Rodgers doesn’t have to attempt to be something that he’s not. It is quite possible that a more limited role will in fact lead to greater success and development for him. It will certainly free him up for what he does best, working near the line of scrimmage, running physical routes, and snagging short first downs and touchdowns.
But if the Packers find themselves near mid-field, down by a touchdown with only a few seconds left in the game, Aaron Rodgers may want to still send Rich floating down toward the end zone, just in case.
Taylor O\'Neill is a Packer fan born and raised in Oshkosh, WI. He currently lives in Florida and is pursuing his PhD. Taylor is a writer with PackersTalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TaylorONeill87 for more Packer news.