Packers by Position: TEs

On more than one occasion last season, then-offensive coordinator Joe Philbin would joke with reporters about a secret five tight end alignment he and coach Mike McCarthy had drawn up for the Green Bay Packers’ offense.

Then-tight ends coach Ben McAdoo went Philbin, an old tight ends coach himself, one better.

“I’d like to get six out there. But I think that’d be against the rules,” he said. “I surely wouldn’t turn down that opportunity.”

Six won’t happen, and five might not ever happen again, either – at least not to start the 2012 season.With third-year tight end Andrew Quarless likely ticketed for the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from a major, season-ending knee injury suffered on Dec. 4 against the New York Giants, the Packers probably won’t carry five tight ends until after the midpoint of the season.

That said, in a league where tight ends – especially adept pass-catchers – are en vogue, the Packers might’ve been ahead of the curve when they kept five (Jermichael Finley, Quarless, Tom Crabtree and rookies D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor) coming out of training camp last year. They even had all five active for six of the first 12 games of the season before Quarless’ injury.

Why does McCarthy value tight ends so much? Not only is their “body type” perfect for special teams units, but the coach loves the options having so many on the roster gives him in terms of the offensive scheme.

“Just the way they’re utilized, it’s really part of the reason why went to five tight ends,” McCarthy said. “I think they even have more flexibility than your traditional fullback body type.”

At tight end, it all starts with Jermichael Finley, who returned by signing a two-year, $15 million deal before hitting the free-agent market in March. After his second 55-catch season – one shy of Paul Coffman’s team record for receptions by a tight end in a season – Finley’s charge is simple: Catch the football more consistently. STATS had him for 11 dropped passes last season, ProFootballFocus.com had him for 12 (plus two more in the playoff loss to the New York Giants). While he still managed 767 receiving yards and eight TD catches, he dropped a league-worst 17.9 percent of the “catchable” balls thrown his way, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

“Jermichael is a talent and a forced to be reckoned with when he’s on the field. So getting him as many opportunities as possible is important,” said new tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, who shifted from coaching running backs when McAdoo took over as quarterbacks coach this offseason. “He’s going to help us in a number of ways. That’s not just solely exclusive to the pass game. He can help us across the board.

“I think the main emphasis for Jermichael is getting him back (focused). He didn’t catch the ball the way he wanted to. My job this offseason is to help him with that and get him comfortable and refocusing on the ball and we’re doing drills in that area. (But) that’s not the main focus. Our main focus is getting in-tune with the offense and what’s being asked of every player within the system.”

No one is higher on Taylor than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who wanted to see more of Taylor on offense even before Quarless’ injury. A seventh-round pick from North Carolina, Taylor played in 15 games (after being inactive for the opener) and was a core special-teamer, then caught a 1-yard touchdown from Rodgers – his only reception of the year – on his first career offensive snap against Oakland on Dec. 11.

“He’s a kid that has a lot of talent and he plays fast,” Fontenot said. “That’s one thing about Ryan. I’m always on the field telling him to remember to breathe, because he’s almost holding his breath as he’s running down the field, he’s giving it everything he’s got. You love to see that in a kid, that enthusiasm. Again, he’s a kid that has certain things he needs to work on and we’ll focus on that. That’s what we’re doing, hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to contribute as much as possible.”

The other rookie tight end last year, Williams, had won the Mackey Award as a senior at Arkansas and came in as the more NFL-ready pass-catcher. But in 13 games last season, he caught just two passes. After an offseason in the team’s program, he seems to have developed a better all-around game, which should give him more chances to play.

“He’s kind of in the same boat as Ryan. He’s a different style of player,” Fontenot said. “D.J.’s a little more fluid running routes, a little more in tune with certain intricacies of the pass game, but he’s a smooth player. (I) like D.J. a lot. He’s kind of multi-functional. Again, (we’ll be) giving him as much exposure as we can to the many different things a tight end has to do within the system to find out what suits him the best.”

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Crabtree, an old soul kind of player even though he’s only going into his third NFL season. Rodgers loves Crabtree because he’s always where he’s supposed to be and makes very few mental errors; Fontenot believes that despite low production (six receptions, 38 yards, one TD), Crabtree is a better pass-catcher than he’s given credit for.

“To go back to the Super Bowl, he made the huge catch down in the red zone on third and 6, whatever it was. He made an outstanding catch to the outside, converted the third down,” Fontenot said. “That’s how I see Crabby – whenever he gets his opportunity, he generally produces. We want to give him enough where we’re not stressing him out by having him do a whole wide range of things, but he has to be in tune enough to fill in at any position he’s asked to play in.”
 

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