Tight end Matthew Mulligan blocks Arizona defensive end Matt Shaughnessy for running back James Starks (44) during the preseason opener at Lambeau Field. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
When the Green Bay Packers line up for their half-line, run-blocking drills in training camp this summer, they can field a tight end unlike any they’ve had in several years or more.
Matthew Mulligan, signed to a one-year contract as a free agent this offseason, is 6-foot-4 and squarely built, with his listed weight at 267 pounds and his real weight possibly a little higher. His specialty is blocking, and in this drill he gets stalemates and even displacement against run stoppers who know the run is coming.
On Wednesday, for instance, Mulligan was matched one snap against outside linebacker Nick Perry, a 265-pounder who in this camp has routinely defeated and sometimes trashed on runs to his side. On this snap, Mulligan holds Perry to stalemate at first and then even pushes Perry back a half-step or so.
A few plays later, Mulligan is matched against defensive end C.J. Wilson, who is 6-3 and 306. The tight end gets a half-step of push at first and then maintains a stalemate thereafter.
“For a tight end to be moving guys, that’s unusual,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “He does some things very well. For that drill, the defense knows what’s coming. For a guy to win in that situation is even more profound. We always used to say, if you can win in the drills when the defense knows the ball is being run, then you can win on any play on Sunday.
“He’s done a good job. He’s big enough to move those guys, whenever he displays the right (technique) that we talk about. That’s one of the things we focus on, technique. His technique isn’t quite where we want it, but it’s getting there.”
Mulligan was one of two players the Packers added this offseason to bring more of a power element to their run game. The other was halfback Eddie Lacy, a second-round draft pick. And 2½ weeks into camp, Mulligan appears to be all but a lock to make the Packers’ final roster, mainly because of the punch he brings as a run blocker.
The Packers signed the low-profile Mulligan in April to a one-year deal worth $820,000, with $105,000 of that in bonuses. He’d made the NFL the hard way, as an undrafted free agent out of Maine, first as a member of the Miami Dolphins’ and then Tennessee Titans’ practices squads in 2008. In ’09, he split time on the New York Jets’ practice squad and roster, and the past three seasons he’s been with the Jets (’10 and ’11) and St. Louis Rams (last year).
General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy went into the offseason committed to significantly upgrading the Packers’ run game. To simplify the issue, last season defenses took away the Packers’ quick-strike abilities by playing two safeties deep most of the time and daring McCarthy to run the ball. Thompson and McCarthy determined that the best way to help quarterback Aaron Rodgers was to run the ball better.
Mulligan actually was the first move — the Packers signed him in early April — though Thompson had to have determined by then that running back would be a high priority in the draft later that month.
Fontenot thought Mulligan’s footwork as a blocker was mechanical when he first joined the team for offseason work in the spring. But Mulligan is looking like a good fit for the Packers’ zone-running scheme and the closest thing to a road grader the Packers could find at tight end.
In fact, in the offseason McCarthy set up a package of plays specifically for Mulligan, though Rodgers said the coach hasn’t implemented them yet.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to put that in for week 3 in the preseason, but we had a package we were thinking about with him,” Rodgers said. “We’ll see what happens with that. I’m not sure if we just scrap that or if we’re waiting to put it in next week or in the regular season.”
Mulligan appears to be the second-most-valuable tight end on the roster, behind only starter Jermichael Finley. McCarthy usually keeps at least four tight ends on the final roster and sometimes has gone with five at that position. Along with Mulligan and Finley, the Packers’ other tight ends are Ryan Taylor, who just returned Wednesday from a knee injury; Andrew Quarless, who is out with a quad injury; D.J. Williams, in his third year; and Brandon Bostick, who is in his second season of making the transition from college receiver to NFL tight end.
Mulligan is the team’s undisputed best blocker at the position. He isn’t a smooth runner and has only 14 receptions in his 50-game career, but so far with the Packers he hasn’t shown any difficulty catching the ball. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.89 seconds at his Pro Day workout at Maine in ’08, which is on the slower side in a league where tight ends are getting faster each year, but he appears to run well enough.
In a red-zone team drill Wednesday, he was wide open when he caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Vince Young on an out pattern in the back of the end zone.
“I just know when I looked at him run a route (Tuesday), he was running just as fast the No. 2 receiver on the other side in the slot,” Fontenot said. “It was a vertical route, there was no real impingement for either one, and he was step for step with (the receiver) through 15 yards.”
And most importantly, he brings a physical element to a team looking to become more physical in the run game.
“He finishes,” Fontenot said. “He plays every play to the whistle and is not going to make any apologies about it. We want guys that play to the whistle. It’s about establishing our willpower.”
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