Green Bay Packers tight ends Tom Crabtree, from left, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor take part in Monday night's practice at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers tight end Andrew Quarless was unable to pass his physical because of a hip flexor. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Last year, the Green Bay Packers used a fifth-round draft pick on what they thought would be another budding star tight end to match Jermichael Finley.
Andrew Quarless, the 154th overall pick in 2010, contributed only sparingly as a rookie (21 catches for 238 yards and one touchdown in the regular season) and isn’t doing himself any favors in his bid to regain a roster spot by starting out training camp on the injured list.
But another fifth-round pick, rookie D.J. Williams, is.
Williams, the 141st overall pick in this year’s draft who last season won the John Mackey Award given to college football’s top tight end, is off to a fast start in his first training camp. With Finley being eased back into the lineup because he’s coming off knee surgery and Quarless unable to pass his physical because of a hip flexor, Williams has seen a high volume of snaps with the starters.
Other than first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, who opened camp as the starting left guard, no rookie has seen more time with the starters than Williams.
“One thing I can say is he’s going to be a hell of a player,” said Packers safety Nick Collins, who has had to cover Williams in practice. “He’s very fluid, knows the game, understands the game. I just can’t wait to see him in live action.”
Drafting Williams and another tight end, North Carolina’s Ryan Taylor in the seventh round, seemed like curious moves considering the Packers had Finley, perhaps their biggest playmaker, returning plus a guy they hoped to develop in Quarless, and two solid veterans in Tom Crabtree and Spencer Havner. But Havner might end up shifting back to linebacker, where he has played in the past, because of the lack of depth at the inside positions, and Quarless’ stock appears to be dropping.
“Ted drafts well,” Finley said. “So I’m not going against what he did.”
The Packers ended last season with three tight ends on the roster but they appear headed toward keeping at least four like they did to start last season, when they had Finley, Quarless, Crabtree and Donald Lee. For now, it’s a crowded room when tight ends coach Ben McAdoo runs the position meeting.
“Well, it’s a pretty big room,” Taylor said. “Yeah, there are a lot of guys in there now. It’s great competition. I’ve been surprised, the older guys are more than willing to help and are friendly guys. I pictured them being like, ‘Get out of the way rookie,’ but they’re very helpful. They’re answering some of my questions, some of D.J.’s questions.”
The Packers couldn’t pass on the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Williams, who ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the combine. He caught 54 passes for 627 yards and four touchdowns as a senior. During the first two camp practices, neither of which was conducted in pads, Williams looked natural in lining up in line, split out or going in motion. Late in Sunday’s practice, he snagged a one-handed catch near the sideline in traffic.
Taylor, too, has had his moments. At 6-3, 254, he’s bigger than Williams but not as fluid. He also lined up more split out than in line while at North Carolina but might be the better blocker. He also was a special teams ace for the Tar Heels and has made an impact on special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum’s unit. Taylor lined up with the No. 1 kick return unit to open camp.
Williams and Taylor have benefited greatly from the absence of Quarless and Finley, who have been limited to only individual and group drills during the Packers’ first three practices but could return to 11-on-11 action Wednesday.
“I can’t say enough about D. J. and Ryan,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy following practice on Monday night. “Not only what they’ve been able to absorb and perform on those three nights because of all the different things we ask the tight ends to do, but also the number or reps they’ve had to take.
“I’ve been very impressed with those two tight ends.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.