TEs: Packers offseason by position
Players under contract
Unrestricted free agents
The good news: There were times last season when it was hard to tell No. 88 and No. 86 apart from afar, and you didn’t have to be a fortysomething sportswriter whose eyesight was suddenly starting to worsen. After spending the 2012 season on the practice squad, Bostick made the roster coming out of training camp and patterned his game after Finley’s. With similar size, athleticism and a basketball background – Finley, you’ll recall, went to the University of Texas thinking he’d be allowed to play football and basketball before coach Mack Brown put the kibosh on that idea – the former small-school hoopster even wore similar receiving gloves and ran his routes like his quasi-big brother. Now, with Finley’s future in doubt after a career-threatening neck injury suffered Oct. 20 against Cleveland and ensuing single-fusion cervical spine surgery, Bostick could be in line for a major role in the offense in 2014. He saw action in 11 games last season, catching seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown before a foot injury suffered at Dallas on Dec. 15 ended his season and required surgery.
Despite his potential, though, Bostick is far from a finished product.
“Brandon is a very speedy, stretch-the-field vertically type of player. He does have a big body, but he has to learn how to use that big body,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “He hasn’t had a lot of experience in run blocking. He did make some strides this year. He does everything that we ask him to do. … It’s just a matter of developing him fundamentally as much as we can. I think he’s a guy that can definitely have an impact.”
The bad news: What had once been a position of strength is now one of uncertainty. Two years ago, the Packers carried five tight ends on the roster, and when they called Stoneburner up from the practice squad five days before Finley suffered a bruised spinal cord against the Browns, they had five on the 53. Now, though, it’s hard to say what will happen at the position. Even had Finley’s injury never happened, he still might’ve played his final down in Green Bay because he was off to a terrific start (25 receptions, 300 yards, three touchdowns) and might’ve priced himself out of Green Bay with the kind of season he appeared to be on his way to having. Now, the unrestricted free agent may never play football again. Although he was working Radio Row at the Super Bowl talking about being cleared for full football drills – including contact – soon, it will be interesting to see how various teams’ medical staffs view him. If he gains medical clearance, there’s little doubt that he still has a bright football future in front of him, as he’ll turn 27 on March 26. If he does not return to Green Bay – whether it’s because of the injury or because he signs elsewhere – he will be missed.
“I think production-wise, we obviously felt an impact there without Jermichael,” Fontenot said. “Because, you know, to ask anybody to get the yards after catch and yards after contact that he gets is probably not fair. I thought that, overall, as far as we wanted our drop percentage down, and that was definitely down. Protection-wise, I thought we did a good job. Run game-wise, I think we can do better [as blockers]. Other than that, I think that the guys did a good job of helping each other out. Andrew did a great job of taking the young guys and helping them along, and Ryan, as well. In terms of that, I thought that they picked up the slack.”
The big question: Finley’s loss was certainly significant, but both times he’s suffered season-ending injuries – in 2010 (knee) and last season – Quarless was the guy who filled the void. The trajectory of Quarless’ career was clearly upward after an unexpectedly productive season as Finley’s replacement as a rookie on the Super Bowl XLV-winning 2010 team, but a horrific knee injury in December 2011 has proven difficult for Quarless to overcome. He missed the entire 2012 season as a result – starting the year on the physically unable to perform list, then being added to the 53-man roster before ending up on injured reserve without having played a snap – and admitted last season that he was still working his way back to his pre-injury form. He ended up playing in all 16 games with 10 starts, registering 32 catches for 312 yards (9.8 avg.) and two TDs, all of which were career bests. It will be interesting to see what his market will be come March.
“I think he’s got more in the tank, and we talked about that throughout the season,” Fontenot said. “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. The receivers are always in conversation with the quarterbacks and kind of fine-tuning details as far as where quarterbacks want them at any particular point.
“Overall, I thought we made strides in the right direction. But I think we have more in the tank.”
Offseason outlook: If both Finley and Quarless depart, the opportunity for Taylor will be enormous. A 2011 seventh-round pick, Taylor caught the eye of quarterback Aaron Rodgers early on but has yet to find a niche in the offense beyond serving as a blocker at the end of the line of scrimmage or motioning into the backfield. In three seasons, he’s caught only eight passes, and six of those came last season. A key contributor on the special teams coverage and blocking units, his most memorable offensive play in a game that counted – he did have a late touchdown catch from Graham Harrell in a come-from-behind preseason victory at Indianapolis in 2011 – was his drop against Detroit on Oct. 6 on what likely would have been a touchdown. A knee injury and a limited offensive role thereafter prevented him from atoning. He’ll be entering a contract year in 2014 and if the opportunity presents itself, he needs to embrace it. Stoneburner, too, is an interesting prospect who will benefit from an offseason in the program.
“Jake is a very smart player. He works well with the quarterback. Whenever you have a guy that can handle things mentally in our offense, you’re going to give yourself a chance to succeed,” Fontenot said. “I think that moving forward, I’ll be excited to work with him next year.”
All that said, the bottom line is the Packers’ offense functions much better with a significant receiving threat at tight end. Whether that player is Finley, Bostick, another holdover or an offseason acquisition via the draft or free agency, with Rodgers at quarterback and a running game with the potential to be among the NFL’s best with Eddie Lacy, Fontenot believes it’s vital.
“I would say so, yeah,” he said. “With the quarterback and running back that we have, yes.”
Next: Offensive line.
– Jason Wilde