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Who's the Second Tight End?

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
June 20, 2012

 

Mike McCarthy has been saying for years that he likes tight ends.

"I'm a big fan of the position," McCarthy said after last year's draft, when the Packers drafted two more tight ends to join the three already on the roster. "I just think that the body type of tight ends and outside linebackers, there's versatility that they bring to the table."

Maybe he really does like the versatility that body type brings, or maybe he just never got over the fact he was an all-conference tight end himself back at Baker University. Whatever the case, McCarthy loves his tight ends.

The NFL is crazy for tight ends too these days. The Patriots are the trendsetters, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez lighting up the league. Gronkowski had the best season in NFL history for tight ends, breaking the record for touchdowns (17) and yards (1,327). Lost in the shuffle is the fact that his teammate, Aaron Hernandez, produced like a top-five tight end in his own right and racked up 79 receptions for 910 yards to go along with 7 touchdowns.

The NFL is a copycat league, and it always seems like the Patriots are the team others are copying. The Colts spent two premium picks this year on tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, considered by many draft experts to be the best two tight ends in the draft. The Seahawks already had one of the better tight ends in the league with the unheralded Zach Miller, but they still traded for Kellen Winslow Jr. this offseason. Even in our own division, the Vikings went out and signed John Carlson this offseason to go along with Kyle Rudolph, and the Bears have raised some eyebrows during offseason workouts with how much more they have been practicing two tight end sets.

Bill Belichick often gets credit as the mastermind who is ushering in the new era of tight end-heavy offenses, but Mike McCarthy may have actually been ahead of the curve as well. Before Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez ever played a regular season snap, the Packers kept four tight ends on their opening day roster in 2010. And the Packers weren't the only team to do so.

Of course, what makes the Patriots different was their production. Gronkowski and Hernandez lit up the league. There has never been a tight end duo like them. As much as we like to look back and revel in what Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura brought to the Packers back in the 90's, their numbers were only a fraction of what the Patriots tight ends were able to accomplish.

Because the Packers are so stacked at wide receiver, they don't really need to play more in a two tight end set. But it's not too much of a stretch to think that McCarthy would love to have some production from that formation. Nobody likes mixing up looks and formations more than McCarthy, and that would give opposing defenses just one more thing to consider.

The first thing that needs to happen with the tight end situation is that Jermichael Finley needs to be a more consistent, productive producer. There are times when he looks like he is a man among boys out there, like in the playoff game against the Cardinals in 2009 when he had 6 receptions for 159 yards. Then there are other times when he just doesn't seem to produce like he should. Last year, he had 3 receptions or fewer in 10 out of the 16 regular season games. Sure, maybe he was used as a decoy sometimes. But you would still like to see more production than that, especially considering how physically gifted he is.

So if Finley does tap into his immense talent and become more productive, which of the other tight ends would be most likely to emerge if the Packers employed more two tight end sets?

The Blocker: Tom Crabtree
If Crabtree makes the team again, it would be his third season with the Packers. He knows the playbook and is trusted by the coaches, and his strengths are his blocking and grittiness. Crabtree serves a purpose and plays a role, but it is hard to imagine him catching more passes regularly. When the ball is thrown in his direction, it still seems like a bit of a surprise.

The Pass Catcher: D.J. Williams
The Packers said they were surprised Williams was still on the board when they picked him in the fifth round last year. After winning the Mackey Award for being the best tight end in college, Williams flashed a couple times early in training camp last year and showed that he has good hands. He just wasn't ready for prime time yet, however, and wasn't much of a factor as a rookie. This will be a big offseason for him. He has the kind of intangibles coaches like, and has looked good at times so far during OTA's and minicamp.

The Special Teams Ace: Ryan Taylor
Taylor was a typical Ted Thompson draft pick last year...a guy that sent fans scrambling through their draft guides because they had never heard of him, and even the draft guides didn't say much about him. He turned out to be a good pick for a seventh rounder, and made the team in a lockout shortened year. Primarily a special teams player during the regular season, he showed glimpses during the preseason when he made clutch plays with a touchdown catch on fourth down, then also the two point conversion that helped the Packers late in the fourth quarter in a come-from-behind victory over the Colts.

The Rehabber: Andrew Quarless
Before suffering a season-ending injury, Quarless had quietly developed into a solid contributor in his second season. Having been described at times by Bob McGinn and others as a "poor man's Jermichael Finley," he had evolved into a player the coaches and other players trusted. Recently, Aaron Rodgers was asked about the development of D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor, and he went out of his way to single out Quarless. It remains a question, however, how quickly he will be able to come back from his late-season injury. He's almost a lock for the PUP list which means he wouldn't be back until Week 7 at the earliest, and then you can't help but wonder if they'll just put him on injured reserve after that.

The Dark Horse: Tori Gurley
Gurley isn't a tight end, but if you watched practice and didn't know any better, you might think he is. There was a lot of talk about Finley last offseason when he showed up at lean 240 pounds. After bulking up, Gurley is now up to 234 pounds, and at 6'4" is only one inch shorter than Finley. It is conceivable that the Packers could use Gurley in some of the same ways a team might use a tight end, other than in-line blocking. He is almost the size teams look for in their "Joker" tight end these days.

With only so many passes to go around and all of talent the Packers have at wide receiver, I think it is unlikely the Packers will get realistically get much production from a second tight end. If they did, however, my money would be on Ryan Taylor at this point. It seems like his arrow is pointed upward, and he just keeps improving. The light started to come on for him late in his senior year in college, as he finished each of the last three games of his college career with personal best records in terms of catches and yards. He capped it off with 9 receptions for 85 yards in his final game in the Music City Bowl, and looked like a game changer on the field. He went on to make a good impression on the Packers right away, and from the outside looking it it looked like he sealed up a roster spot fairly early in training camp based on his special teams play. He seemed to earn the trust of the coaches more and more as he went along, and late in the season he was starting to see the field on offense. He had clearly won over Aaron Rodgers as well, as he made public comments to the effect that Taylor had earned more playing time.

Usually, when Aaron Rodgers talks, people listen. I have a sneaky suspicion that we will get to see Ryan Taylor quite a bit more this season.