As we inch closer and closer to free agency and the Draft, let’s take a look at another position group that needs an upgrade. This one is the one most hyped by fans to be a target in both free agency and on Draft Day: the Tight Ends.
Evaluating the Tight Ends has been a tough endeavor for me this offseason. There were some extreme highs from the position and some extreme lows for a couple of seasons now. And while each player brings something a little different, they all have work to do to improve and will be bolstered from outside in some way. So let’s take a look at the five Tight Ends on the roster currently and see where they can improve or even if they’ll be Packers next year.
Coming into the 2015 season a lot was expected of Richard Rodgers. He was drafted higher than projected, was inheriting a starter’s role and had the trust of his fellow California-schooled Rodgers. And while he isn’t the most athletic tight end, he had a knack of finding the soft spots in zone coverage and was a major red zone threat. Think of a better version of Bubba Franks, especially with this hand softness. And even if his career comes to a screeching halt, he already has cemented a place in Packer lore with his incredibly Hail Mary catch in Detroit. It was a textbook play of high pointing the ball and making a play.
However, he does have some pretty alarming weaknesses for a starting tight end. He is not the greatest blocker, but improving. On top of that, he is no threat after the catch. He can catch the ball well and churn out yardage on those, but struggles to break tackles. Even when he does, it isn’t pretty as he is slowed down enough for other defenders to swarm him. He is a good piece to have and a good student of the game, but it’s likely he is best as a #2 tight end a la Jim Kleinsasser.
After a wasted season due to injury Quarless faces an uncertain future in Green Bay. An unrestricted free agent, Quarless looks to come back to the team that drafted him and gave him a chance to make an impact. And while he hasn’t been as good as I projected when he was drafted out of Penn State, he has been a solid player and a good vocal leader on the field. Whenever you see those hype videos of the team huddle before a game, that is usually Quarless giving the speech. Those intangibles are something that you love to have on your roster, but the question remains of whether Quarless’s positives outweight all the baggage that now follows him.
Quarless played in only five games last year, catching exactly one pass. And his major knee injury puts a damper on his impact, especially after he destroyed that knee in 2011. So everything depends on whether he can recover again. When on the field, he is a solid pass catcher who can make some spectacular catches but is prone to losing concentration at times. And while he was a strong blocker when he was younger, his strength has waned after his first knee injury. Quarless is someone I expect to be brought into camp on a non-guaranteed contract and probably be among the final cuts. It’ll just be a numbers game.
A two year practice squad player, Perillo was thought highly enough of to be called up the active roster in both of the past two season and made an impact last year, catching 11 passes for 102 yard and his first NFL touchdown. He also was a stalwart on special teams, but is more of a jack-of-all-trades master-of-none guy. He isn’t the greatest blocker, doesn’t have great speed, and isn’t especially big. But he is a hard worker, durable, and always leaves it on the field. That effort has kept him in Green Bay for two years and might again. He is an exclusive rights free agent and is likely to be kept around for a third chance to make the roster out of camp.
Backman was a project when he was drafted, we all knew that, but after he made the team we expected some sort of improvement over the season, and he didn’t reach those mild expectations. He had a couple of drops and was never trusted to be on the field with the offense. He is athletic and catches the ball naturally, but he is far behind on development and looks like a lesser version of Brandon Bostick. Both guys are extremely similar but Bostick was even more athletic. I look for Backman to get one shot to make the team this year, but it’ll be a long shot.
One of the most buzzed about guys in camp, Henry broke his hand early but still found a way to make plays. One of the final roster cuts, he was claimed by Denver and saw action in two games before he was waived and came back to Green Bay. A star at Western Kentucky, he ended up with 78 career receptions in college and 12 touchdowns. Tall (6’4”) and athletic, Henry has a lot of potential and will get a chance again to impress the team during camp. I look for him to stick this time.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
This is a good free agent class at tight end if Ted Thompson were willing to break the bank for one and they don’t re-sign with their original teams. There are some upper-level guys available, with multiple from San Diego and Indianapolis. From the Chargers, both Antonio Gates and LaDarius Green are both available, but the Bolts are working on trying to sign both back. And the Colts have a conundrum as well with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen both UFAs. The preference for them is Fleener so Allen is in play, but he will be highly coveted. Other, lesser known guys to keep an eye on: Anthony McCoy (SEA), Jermaine Gresham (ARI), Clay Harbor (JAX), Tony Moeaki (ATL).
My final one, and one that I expect to happen, is Jared Cook getting signed. He was cut by Los Angeles, so he won’t factor into compensatory picks and he fits the mold of the tight end the Packers need. A big, fast, seam bursting tight end who is similar athletically to Jermichael Finley, he can be an impact player with the right coaching. And after flaming out with Jeff Fisher twice in Tennessee and St. Louis/Los Angeles, he is on his potential last spot to cash in on his immense promise.
The draft is pretty shallow at tight end, with only one to two guys per round projected by CBSSports. The consensus favorite is Hunter Henry from Arkansas. A big, athletic player who made plays last season, I would love to get him in Round 2, but he is a reach to me in Round 1. I would also be a fan if the team took Austin Hooper from Stanford. He is a round 2 prospect as well and is a good receiver with some burst. Other guys to keep an eye on are Tyler Higbee from Western Kentucky (Rds 3-4), Jerrell Adams from South Carolina (Rds 4-5), and surprisingly listed here Tanner McEvoy from Wisconsin (Rd 6-7-UDFA). All are athletic and fit the mold of what the team is looking for. The question is how much the Packers are willing to wait for development.
PROJECTION FOR NEXT YEAR
Jared Cook, Richard Rodgers, Justin Perillo*, Mitchell Henry, Jerrell Adams, Andrew Quarless*, Kennard Backman*
* indicates roster cuts during camp.——————
Mike Wendlandt is originally from Iola, Wisconsin and graduated from Drake University in 2015 with a degree in History. With a significant journalism background both in writing and broadcasting, Mike can be heard as the play-by-play voice of Central Wisconsin High School sports on WDUX FM 92.7 and on Twitter @MikeWendlandt.
Mike Wendlandt is a writer covering the Green Bay Packers for PackersTalk.com.