Packers need an upgrade at tight end

Is the third time the charm for finding the right tight end in free agency?

There is no question that the Packers have lacked a quality receiving TE since Jermichael Finley’s departure following a career-ending neck injury in 2013. Since then they have lacked a true Joker style tight end that excel more as beefed up wide receivers that are known for their hands and less for their brute force blocking skills. Now don’t get me wrong, the Pack needs a tight end that can block.

But they really need one to be a deeper threat on the field that not only can catch the ball, but serve as a decoy that will draw defenders away from other receivers and possibly free them up.

The Packers thought they had that when they signed Jared Cook two years ago. He had that amazing sideline catch that we all remember. He had even better chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. But then he was gone. The Packers thought they had an upgrade last spring when they signed former and current tight end Martellus Bennett.

And we all know how that went. He had butterfingers worse than Finley. He seemed to phone it in. Then he got hurt. And then he through the team’s orthopedist under the bus. And then he signed with the Patriots. (For the record, the schadenfreude of this fair weather teammate not getting a ring this February is absolutely delicious.)

With that the Packers are back to square one. They have solid but not flashy tight ends. Yes, Richard Rodgers is reliable at times. Who can forget that Hail Mary? Sure, he’ll draw some coverage away from other receivers. But he is slow on his feet and sometimes has a hard time reeling the ball in. Meanwhile Lance Kendricks gets the job done. But I don’t think he made the jump from Badgers football to the pros as successful as it could have been. They work in a pinch, but neither is a deal breaker with offensive schemes.

The Packers could use a mid-round pick for a Tight End, but it would be a gamble, and likely that player would not make a huge impact as a rookie.

That leaves free agency. Unless that player’s name is Jimmy Graham, there are few upgrades the Packers may want to pursue.

As for Graham, there’s a good chance Seattle will want him back. The big question is if they are willing to retain him in the luxury and style he is accustomed to. At 31, he’s in the prime of his career (or maybe just a hair on the far end of it.) While his blocking skills leave something to be desired, that’s what the Packers have Ripkowski for. If you sign Graham, you expect him to be catching the ball. But he has good chemistry with Seahawks QB Russell Wilson who has gone on the record that he wants Jimmy to return.

Yet like the Packers, the Seahawks have a bit of an identity crisis as well. Neither made the playoffs and both are entering into a rebuilding and reimaging season. If the Packers make a run for Graham, they won’t be alone.

Then there is Antonio Gates. Don’t even get me started. At 37, he is something like 108 years in football years. Past his prime, and I don’t think the Packers want to go for a third year of a TE that is here then gone. I’m going to give him a giant pass.

What about the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert? Everyone remembers that spectacular 2015 season where he brought in 52 receptions for 615 yards and 13 touchdowns. But since 2016, he has only been on the field for one third of the games. Between his back and ankle, he has become a bit of an injury magnet. While the Bengals may want to retain him, he is definitely not one I would be throwing a bushel of cash at to join the Packers roster.

Perhaps the Packers should be looking for younger free agent talent. The wear and tear will be less, and the potential could definitely outweigh any baggage or downsides. One player that comes to mind that may fit that bill is Eagles tight end Trey Burton.

Yeah, that guy who lofted a touchdown pass to Napoleon Dynamite in the Super Bowl. He doesn’t have huge stats, but then again, he is still very much in Zach Ertz’s shadow in Philly. Yet read between the lines and there is the potential for a playmaker. Last season he had 23 receptions for 248 yards. Over half of those receptions were for first downs. (Read: the kid does a good job of moving the chains.) And then there were the 5 receptions in the end zone.

One of the best stat on his sheet is the fact that he has only missed three games since 2016. He doesn’t have the injury history that someone banged up like Eifert has. That is definitely an added gift with purchase.

And then there is the added fact that Richie Rodgers is also a free agent. While I don’t think the Packers should put all of that basket, I think it would be a good idea to retain him, even if he commanded nearly $2 Million last year. Like I mentioned above, he is solid. He draws coverage away. He has good chemistry and rapport with Rodgers. But he serves a different purpose. To get rid of him would really make the depth chart very shallow. There’s too much of a step down between Kendricks and him. It would be too chancy to let him walk.

And if you look at other talent (Virgil Green, Niles Paul, Luke Wilson, etc), it would be a cheaper lateral move than anything else. It would not be a significant upgrade on a Richard Rodgers or a Lance Kendricks.

So maybe someone like Trey Burton is the way to go. He has youth on his side, and the untarnished health go with it. No,  he’s not a Gronk. But is there anyone out there that can truly be compared to a Rob Gronkowski? He’s one of those one in a million players that only come around once in a lifetime.

The Packers can’t hold out for the next Gronkowski. He isn’t hiding in plain sight in the draft, nor is he waiting with baited breath to sign on the Green and Gold line in free agency. Nevertheless, the Packers should take the plunge in free agency and upgrade their receiving tight end and diversify the offense with that decision. The right player is out there. Hopefully the Packers will find the correct fit.