GREEN BAY - The caveat, as is always the case for Aaron Rodgers when he gets excited about a young player who makes an offseason impression on him, remained solidly in place: All offseason observations come from practices conducted in helmets and shorts, and it's not until training camp and the preseason that the Green Bay Packers quarterback can see if his hunches about players are correct.
With that said, rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers – no relation – clearly caught his brother from another mother's eye, because the quarterback couldn't help but praise the 6-foot-4, 257-pound rookie tight end during offseason practices – with backup quarterback Matt Flynn concurring.
"Matt and I were just talking about it, how when we made the pick, some of the so-called ‘experts' on the draft [coverage] said he was a late sixth-round pick, [that that's where] they had him as far as a grade," Aaron Rodgers said. "Which is pretty laughable when you watch the talent he's got and the ability, especially some of the plays he made [during the offseason].
"Again, it's helmet and shorts, but you have to be excited about his body type and the hands. He's made some incredible catches, makes it look easy. I think he's going to push for some playing time. If he can transfer what he's done in the spring to the fall, [he will] have the potential to be an impact player."
Nothing would make the Packers happier, given the uncertainty that reigns at the tight end position as training camp gets underway next Saturday.
Gone, at least for now, is incumbent starter Jermichael Finley, who remains on the unrestricted free-agent market after suffering a bruised spinal cord in an Oct. 20 game against Cleveland and undergoing single fusion spinal surgery shortly thereafter. Finley came to Green Bay last week and met with Packers team doctor Pat McKenzie to go over his MRI results and discuss his options, but Finley has yet to be cleared by anyone other than his surgeon, which is why he remains unsigned.
Meanwhile, presumptive starter Andrew Quarless, whom the Packers re-signed on a two-year, $3 million deal ($350,000 signing bonus) after he had a pair of productive games (six receptions, 66 yards, one touchdown against both Atlanta and Dallas) in successive weeks after replacing Finley as the No. 1 tight end. Then Quarless missed the entire on-field portion of the offseason, not participating in a single organized team activity practices or minicamp session because of an undisclosed injury. As the offseason sessions concluded, it was unclear when Quarless would return to action, but when he does, he has work to do.
According to tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, his postseason conversation with Quarless focused on him needing to improve his finishing on blocks, his fundamentals (pad level, footwork) as a run blocker and having a greater impact in the passing game, which Fontenot said could increase if Quarless became a better route runner.
Whether those areas of improvement are the result of Quarless missing all of the 2012 season with a major knee injury suffered late in 2011 is unclear, but those improvements must be made, Fontenot said.
"All of that being said, I see a guy who has a lot more in the tank and can give a lot more to this team," Fontenot said. "I'm excited about having Drew in our room. He's not afraid of hard work and he understands that it's going to take every ounce of energy that he has in order to get to the point where he can contribute in the way that I think that he can."
The other veteran holdovers – Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner – have a combined career total of 15 receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns. So in terms of offensive production, they have yet to prove they are capable threats – although Bostick bears a striking resemblance to Finley at times and is the best pass-catcher in the group – and leaving the door open for a young player to spring up, like Rodgers or undrafted free agent Colt Lyerla, the troubled former Oregon star who is battling long odds after leaving the Ducks program last fall and being arrested for cocaine possession shortly thereafter.
"Like a lot of times, you get excited about your new players. I think that's a normal process that the coaching staff, the personnel department, the veterans that everybody goes through," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "But you're able to see the athletic ability, the strength, the balance, do they belong, I think that's definitely the case in the tight end group. I've been very pleased with the variations each new guy gives us. But also, tight ends, linebackers, fullback, that whole grouping, you get a better idea once you put the pads on in training camp."
QUICK READ: TIGHT ENDS
Is Finley finished?
There are those who believe Jermichael Finley is crazy for wanting to resume his career despite having a $10 million tax-free insurance payment waiting for him if he calls it a career. Nevertheless, Finley has been adamant about returning to the field once he gains medical clearance, and if that ever happens, the Packers are the logical place for him given his familiarity with the scheme and the fact that no matter where he goes, he can expect a short-term, incentive-laden contract. Whatever the case, Finley was in Green Bay last week and met with team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie, who went over Finley's MRIs with him at Bellin Hospital. The guess here is if Finley resumes his career – and that's a gigantic if – it'll be in Green Bay.
On the rise
Although he only finished the season with seven receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown, Bostick appeared to be coming into his own when a late-season broken foot ended his year. Despite limited experience, he is the tight end who most closely resembles Finley in stature and playing style, and he'll be given every opportunity to make a run at, at minimum, being the tight end on the field in passing situations.
"Obviously, [the foot injury was] a setback, being not able to practice and getting the timing with the quarterback, getting the timing with the blocking unit up front and getting in protection mode," Fontenot said of Bostick, who wasn't cleared to practice until late in OTAs. "
"The more reps that Brandon gets, the better off he's going to be. The more memories that he's able to create and experience on the field practicing against our defense in a full-tempo situation, the better off he's going to be. Obviously, he's taking baby steps since he's been back, but we're pleased with his progress."
Player to watch
The 6-foot-4, 247-pound Lyerla has size, speed and athleticism. But he also has a checkered past, which is why he went undrafted and signed with the Packers after taking part in the rookie camp as a tryout player. While the initial focus, and arguably rightfully so, had been on Lyerla's behavior in the past year. Now, though, he's merely one of the 89 players trying to make the 53-man roster.
"It's a slow process," Fontenot said of Lyerla's reclamation project. "At the end of the day, it's [about] being able to trust your teammates to do their job and being able to understand that they trust you to do yours. I think that implemented on a daily basis builds a little momentum as you move forward, and I think that it can spread to on the field, practice field, not just centered to on-the-field production. Day-to-day traditions of football, I think it definitely can spread into something that can affect a person's live entirely."
Starting tight end.
A year ago, Finley was the clear-cut starter and Quarless was No. 2. Now, it's anybody's ballgame. "Yeah, I think that we are pretty wide open at this point," Fontenot acknowledged. "I think that guys have shown some progress and those guys warrant a much bigger look. Once we get to training camp, we'll kind of have an idea of what the rotation will be and how we give guys reps."
After catching only six passes as a rookie third-round pick in 2008, Finley has three of the most productive seasons by a tight end in team history: He had 55 catches for 676 yards and five TDs in 2009; he had 55 receptions for 767 yards and eight TDs in 2011, and he had a team tight-end record 61 receptions for 667 yards and two TDs in 2012. Even with a relatively inexperienced wide receiving corps in the mix, it's hard to picture any of the tight ends matching those numbers this season.
"I thought Brandon made some real strides by the end of the season. His effort level was really high. He seemed to have a better understanding of what he was being asked to do. As with everything, great effort can overcome a lot of bad technique. In his case that was happening at a much greater level as his technique improved." – Fontenot, on the growth shown by Bostick over the past two years.
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.