The doctors have rebuilt Andrew Quarless’ knee, and his coaches have helped him rebuild his confidence. Now, after signing a two-year contract Thursday to return to the Green Bay Packers, Quarless will have a chance to continue rebuilding the promising career that was derailed by a horrific knee injury two years ago.
The Packers signed the veteran tight end to a two-year deal Thursday, a deal that USA Today’s Tom Pelissero reported to be worth a total of $3 million, including a $350,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $800,000 in 2014 and $1.3 million in 2015.
After stepping in to take over as the team’s No. 1 tight end as a rookie fifth-round pick in 2010 after Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury, Quarless’ star was on the rise in 2011 – until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament and suffered cartilage damage when his right knee buckled against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 4. He missed the rest of the season, then started the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform list. Although he was eventually activated to the 53-man roster, he never made it into a game and ended the year on injured reserve.
“It didn’t help him to sit out as long as he did with that injury,” said tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, who came back from a torn ACL during his own playing career. “It can’t possibly have helped.”
But when Finley went down again last season, with a neck injury on Oct. 20, Quarless again stepped in and produced career bests in receptions (32), receiving yards (312) and touchdown catches (two). His best games came in the Packers’ back-to-back one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas, catching six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in each game.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot as a player, and even going through this injury I think that’s definitely helped me to grow as a player,” Quarless said at season’s end. “I think times are definitely different. I’m not a 21-year-old kid, fresh, wet behind the ears and stuff. I’m a little more vested; I’ve been doing this a little longer. So I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Quarless’ return to form is vital because the Packers still face uncertainty at tight end, even with his return. Finley, who like Quarless hit the unrestricted free-agent market this week, visited the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday. Between other teams’ interest and the need for him to get full medical clearance to resume his football career after suffering a bruised spinal cord and undergoing C3/C4 cervical spine fusion surgery, it’s hard to predict whether he’ll return to Green Bay.
With Quarless back in the fold, the Packers now have Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick, Jake Stoneburner and Quarless at the position, and they remain in the market for another tight end. Ex-University of Wisconsin and Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who was released by the Texans earlier this week, visited Green Bay on Wednesday but left without a contract. He was reportedly set to visit Washington next.
The Packers could also add a tight end in the May 8-10 NFL Draft – this year’s tight end class is considered especially deep by NFL scouts and coaches, including Packers coach Mike McCarthy – but for now, with Quarless back in the fold, he’s the starter until further notice. At the end of the year, he was hoping he’d be back in Green Bay to have that opportunity.
“I definitely think I proved a couple things this year,” Quarless said as he cleaned out his locker after the season-ending NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to San Francisco. “The way I look at it, I’m a big guy about loyalty. This is the team that drafted me. No other team took a risk on me. It took them to the fifth round and they drafted me. I’m always thankful for that and will never forget that.”
After Finley’s injury, Quarless’ playing time went up and he finished the year having played 752 snaps – compared to Finley’s 259. Depending on what happens the rest of the offseason, he could see that much action – or more – next season.
If he does, Fontenot believes Quarless will be closer to his pre-injury form than he has been to this point.
“I think he’s got more in the tank, and we talked about that throughout the season,” Fontenot said of Quarless after the season ended. “I think that he’s made strides in being a better receiver and understanding where he needs to be on the field at any given point. As with anything, you always work on consistency. Having to switch between quarterbacks throughout the year probably had an impact, as well. … Overall, I thought we made strides in the right direction but I think we have more in the tank.
“I think that at times his run blocking improved. Fundamentally, it’s always a challenge whenever you’re coming back from the type of injury that he had and he was out for [essentially] two seasons. He’s got challenges there. Hopefully, moving forward, depending on what happens, I would think that his body will respond better from this point forward.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.