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Green Bay Packers have 'tough decisions' with solid group of tight ends

Aug. 29, 2011
 

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Tight ends Tom Crabtree, left, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor are three of the five tight ends vying for spots on the Green Bay Packers' roster. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

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Charles Woodson doesn’t sit in on General Manager Ted Thompson’s personnel meetings, but he was just thinking logically when he suggested there’s no way the Green Bay Packers can keep all five of the tight ends on their training camp roster.

“I know there’s going to be some tough decisions that have to be made on who’s going to be over there, but if you look at that tight end group over there, it’s as good as any in the league,” said Woodson, the Packers’ cornerback who at times is charged with covering the tight ends during practice. “I wish all would stick around.”

Maybe they can.

Last year, Thompson gave coach Mike McCarthy four tight ends to open the season but never added another one after Jermichael Finley was lost for the season because of a Week 5 knee injury. Three times in the first five weeks, all four were part of the 45-man active game-day roster.

While carrying five tight ends seems unlikely, Thompson and McCarthy have done unconventional things with their roster makeup before. The previous two seasons, they’ve carried three fullbacks. They won’t go into this season that way, not with the departure of Korey Hall in free agency, and perhaps they could go with only one, John Kuhn.

That might give Thompson the luxury of keeping all five tight ends around. He released veteran Spencer Havner on Sunday, presumably so he could take a long look at the foursome behind Finley in Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City at Lambeau Field.

When training camp opened nearly a month ago, tight ends coach Ben McAdoo gathered his unit and told them he felt like all six of them were NFL-caliber tight ends.

“I still think that,” McAdoo said Monday on the eve of the final training camp practice. “I believe they all can play. I think they’ve proven that over the first three preseason games, and I think we are still going to get better. I don’t think there’s a guy in the tight end room that can’t or won’t improve.”

The question is, do they need five tight ends?

It might help for special teams purposes since coordinator Shawn Slocum likes big, athletic players to block and tackle on kickoffs and punts. The Packers took Ryan Taylor of North Carolina in the seventh round largely for that reason, but the 6-foot-3, 254-pound rookie has been better than expected as a receiver. Taylor was the second tight end Thompson picked on the final day of the draft. Two rounds earlier, he grabbed D.J. Williams of Arkansas, who won the Mackey Award given to college football’s top tight end.

So far, Taylor’s been the more complete player of the two rookies. Williams started fast, getting more reps with the starters because Finley was eased back into the lineup and second-year pro Andrew Quarless missed the first four days of practice because of a hip flexor that prevented him passing his physical. As Williams’ production has tailed off, Taylor’s has increased. He caught the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion in Friday’s preseason game at Indianapolis. What’s more, he’s stuck on most of Slocum’s special teams units while Williams has dropped off most of the number one special teams units.

Neither, however, is a complete tight end at this point.

Despite his size, Taylor, who dropped out of practice on Monday because of a hip flexor injury, entered the pro game with little experience as an in-line tight end, one that lines up in a three-point stance next to a tackle. The Packers are looking for someone to take hold of that spot, called the ‘Y’ in their offense.

“Taylor may be one of the heaviest guys we have now,” McAdoo said, “but he’s not used not playing in there. He’s got to get used to it and develop that.”

Williams actually played quite a bit in line at Arkansas, but the Packers view the 6-2, 245-pounder as more of a Finley-type player, one who can line up in the slot and stretch the field, but he might be the poorest blocker among the group.

“You know what, D.J.’s come a long way in his run-blocking fundamentals,” McAdoo said. “He’s improving. If you would have watched the one-on-ones (Monday), you would have seen that against the backers.”

It would seem unlikely that Thompson would cut a fifth-round pick who had no chance to work in the offseason program because of the lockout, but Williams appears to be the least likely member of the fivesome to contribute right away.

“I’ll say this, I think he’s the only guy in the group that’s been available for every practice,” McAdoo said. “So that has to count for something.”

Quarless has been somewhat vexing in his first year and a half with the team. A fifth-round pick in 2010, Quarless was mistake-prone as a rookie and gained a reputation for being immature and brittle. He was inactive the first two weeks last season and missed another game because of a shoulder injury. In addition to the hip flexor at the start of camp, he sustained a groin injury the preseason opener against Cleveland and missed a day of practice.

As much as the rookies would have been helped by time in the offseason program, so too would Quarless, who in practice on Monday dropped a touchdown pass.

Still, Quarless’ long, athletic physique makes him an intriguing prospect that the Packers might regret turning loose so early in his career if they decided to cut him now.

“I think he’s coming along,” McAdoo said. “It would have been nice to have him here this offseason. I think he would have made even more strides.”

At 6-4 and 252 pounds, Quarless and Tom Crabtree (6-4, 245) are the best candidates for the “Y” position. Crabtree doesn’t have Quarless’ pass-catching skills or athleticism, but he’s the better blocker and the far better special teams player.

Finley has a sprained ankle and was probably unlikely to play in Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City anyway, so the Packers will get one more long look at their backups before they have make their final roster decisions.

“You never know,” Quarless said when asked whether he thinks all the tight ends could stick. “It’s a great group. I think it only makes us better. Me personally as a player, to have that much competition, it only gives you that extra drive, and as a position, I think it only makes us better. Overall, it makes us better as a team. That’s the way I look at it.”

rdemovsk@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.

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