GREEN BAY, Wis. - Although it was quite nice of Jerry Fontenot to take responsibility, the Green Bay Packers tight ends coach does know that his guys have to do better – he just believes it's on him to bring out their best.
"We still have a long way to go. Everybody has an area we can improve in. But as a group, I think this group jells really well. This group works," Fontenot said in advance of training camp opening next Thursday, when players report to St. Norbert College in De Pere. "They're all compatible. It's really fun. It really is fun for me to come into work and have this group of guys to work with, because they do everything you ask them to do. Really, the onus falls on me ultimately to get them to perform at their best."
To this point, for various reasons, that hasn't happened. And as much as head coach Mike McCarthy loves the position and the versatility that comes with it, the Packers will need more consistency and productivity from the position – from starter Jermichael Finley, who was up-and-down early on last year before a strong finish; from Andrew Quarless, who missed all of 2012 after a horrific knee injury suffered in December 2011; from D.J. Williams, who has flashed potential but has yet to contribute significantly in two seasons; and from Ryan Taylor, a 2011 seventh-round pick who showed promise as a rookie and caught his quarterback's attention but didn't take much of a step forward last year.
It all starts with Finley, though, who is 26 years old and entering a contract year. He finished the season by catching 26 passes in the final five regular-season games, broke the franchise single-season record for receptions by a tight end (61) and didn't drop a single pass over the final six games (including playoffs).
"I thought we came into this offseason a little more confident than we did last year. We still have a long ways to go. We still have things we need to improve on before the season begins," Fontenot said of Finley. "I don't know that he was targeted any more in the second half of the season, but I know his production went up. To me, the biggest statistical difference was he didn't have the number of drops or percentage of drops that he did the first half of the season. He started having confidence catching the ball and once he gets his hands on the ball, he's always been a threat.
"Our main focus going into last season was to eliminate ‘needless' drops, if you will, and I feel we kind of got him through that."
Finley's certainly not above reverting to his dropping bad habits, but what's surprising about him is that, in spite of the reputation he has now, he wasn't a serial pass-dropper earlier in his career.
Although he had nine drops in 93 targets last year, he had just four drops in 78 targets in 2009 and no drops in 25 targets before a Week 5 season-ending knee injury in 2010. It wasn't until 2011, when he dropped 14 passes in 99 targets, that it appeared to become an issue. (Finley did have two drops in 12 targets as a rookie third-round pick in 2008, but he only played 88 snaps that entire season.
In the interest of making lemonade out of his dropped lemons, Finley pledged this offseason to donate $500 to One Fund Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings for every dropped pass and every touchdown reception he has this season.
"It was just sticking with it and just focusing, detailing every aspect of my game," Finley replied when asked about his drop in drops during the second half. "I just got better, just focused in, zoomed in on the ball and just played my type of ball and not worry about everything else. That's what I did and it showed up on Sundays. Hopefully, we can carry it over to this season and I can play my style. If that happens, everything else will take care of itself."
Quarless, meanwhile, simply wants to play. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and did other damage to his right knee in a Dec. 4, 2011 game against the New York Giants at Met Life Stadium, and although he was activated from the physically unable to perform list in November, the Packers never cleared him for actual game action and he landed on injured reserve in December. He was able to practice without limitations during the organized team activities and mandatory minicamp in June, and he believes he'll be back to himself come opening day.
"I was ready to go. I think everybody knew that but, again, (the knee) wasn't ready," Quarless said. "It was one of those things that it would get swelled up. Certain little things that showed me it wasn't ready. But me, I'm a competitive guy so I was ready to get back out there, which why I think I was back on (the) active (roster)."
Asked how Quarless looked to him during offseason practices, Fontenot replied, "I like where he is. I think Andrew has made some progress this offseason, certainly after being out the amount of time that he was out. To me, it's a matter of Andrew regaining his full strength and full confidence and he's certainly on his way. He's well on target."
Whether Williams and Taylor will amount to anything on offense remains to be seen. Williams caught seven passes for 57 yards in 262 snaps in 14 games, ending his season as a healthy scratch on the inactive list for the playoff loss to San Francisco; Taylor caught one pass for 11 yards in 143 snaps in 18 games, spending most of his time on special teams.
"The key, at least from my experience with D.J., is keeping him healthy. Keeping him in a position where he can go out each and every week and play at 100 percent," Fontenot said. "If he gets nicked up, it seemed like last year he missed time and preparation, and it affects his production. Just a matter of keeping him healthy and getting him the reps that he needs in preparation."
Meanwhile, after not tendering restricted free-agent tight end – and über fan favorite – Tom Crabtree, allowing him to sign with Tampa Bay, the Packers added ex-St. Louis Rams tight end Matthew Mulligan, who at 267 pounds looks more like an undersized tackle than a tight end. And apparently, that's just what the Packers feel they needed.
"Matthew is a guy that really embraces the physical play of football and he's a guy that we're going to be able to use extensively as a blocker," Fontenot said. "He does everything the right way. Whenever he's on the field, he's very meticulous with his techniques, he wants to know specifics of routes and of blocking techniques and fundamentals. He just wants to do things the right way. He's a guy I think is going to help us be more productive."
QUICK READ: TIGHT ENDS
Is this Finley's farewell?
Set to become an unrestricted free agent – again – at the tender age of 26, Finley could price himself right out of Green Bay and make himself a mountain of money on the open market next spring if he realizes his vast potential and plays like that unstoppable player he was in a 2009 NFC Wild Card playoff loss at Arizona. The Packers picked up the tab on the $3 million roster bonus he was due in March, meaning Finley is costing them $8.25 million this season, the second year of the two-year, $14 million deal he got in February 2012 to keep him in the fold. It's also entirely possible that he'll revert to his maddeningly inconsistent play, and the Packers will finally throw their hands up in the air and give up on him. He didn't exactly rise to the occasion during his last contract year (14 drops in 2011), so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
On the rise
Assuming he survives training camp without any setbacks to his knee, when Quarless suits up for the Sept. 8 season opener at San Francisco, it will have been a whopping 644 days between NFL games for Quarless, who took over for Finley as the starter as a rookie in 2010 when Finley was lost for the season. Before his injury, Quarless had become the team's most well-rounded tight end, capable of blocking in-line and making plays in the passing game. A return to health would give the offense a big boost.
Player to watch
It isn't exactly Rick Manning taking over in centerfield for the Milwaukee Brewers for Gorman Thomas, but the departure of fan-favorite and social-media junkie Tom Crabtree after the Packers didn't tender him as a restricted free agent broke plenty of hearts in Packer Nation. Mulligan wasn't brought in until after Crabtree's departure, and although he isn't much of a pass-catcher -- he has 14 career receptions – the similarities apparently end there. "I don't think it's apples-to-apples. I think he's got a different makeup than Crabby did," tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. "Not only with his personality but in terms of what he can contribute to the team. I think he has a role that will suit him and it wouldn't have suited Crabby. I just find that he's a little bit more, um, what's the word I'm looking for? He's probably more businesslike. Not as loose and free-spirited. He's a little more tight."
Reserve playing time.
Finley is the clear-cut starter and Quarless is No. 2 if healthy, so the question about coach Mike McCarthy's tight-end favoring offense is who else will get the snaps. Certainly Mulligan will see plenty of action on obvious run downs because of his blocking acumen, but it's a big year for Williams and Taylor, neither of whom made an appreciable jump last year in their second NFL seasons. One player to keep a close eye on is the athletic Bostick, who earned an offseason roster spot as a tryout player at the post-draft rookie orientation camp and spent the season on the practice squad. He's a young player from a tiny school still finding his way, but there's talent there.
It's certainly fair to expect much from Finley, given the compensation level he's at. Not only is he pocketing $8.25 million in the final year of his contract, but his $7 million per year average ranks him fourth on the team in average annual salary, behind only quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($18.6 million), outside linebacker Clay Matthews ($11.6 million) and cornerback Tramon Williams ($7.6 million). Safety Morgan Burnett, who signed a four-year extension worth $24.75 million last week, has a lower average annual salary ($5.2 million) because his 2013 pay ($1.323 million) remained unchanged with the new deal.
"I think you have to have a very positive attitude because I think every player in this locker room has high expectations for themselves. I think everyone feels like if they put the effort and hard work towards it, they will get their opportunity. I think what's key for people like myself is understanding and trusting coaching and decision-making and understanding that patience is a virtue, especially in this business. You see people get impatient, you start seeing them get upset, lashing out at teammates and coaches in the media. I think the people who can sit back, learn every day, be patient, that's what I'm taking it as. In the same spectrum of things, I am getting out there in the fullback role now that Kuhn's down, and I love it. I get to be on the field, making plays. I don't think making plays is just catching the ball. It takes 11 people to make one thing work, and it's very cool to be part of that." – D.J. Williams, on his approach to his limited role in two seasons.
Next: Offensive line.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.