NFL coaches often lecture during training camp about how any player on their offseason roster could easily wind up on the initial 53.
Whether they're being truthful is open to interpretation on a team-by-team basis, but when it comes to the Green Bay Packers’ tight end situation that just might have been the case.
The Packers could’ve gone in a multitude of different directions when selecting from their pool of seven tight ends during last week’s mandatory cuts after two NFL sources confirmed the organization left the door open to trading one of their reserve tight ends behind Jermichael Finley leading up to cut-down day.
No deals were done and the Packers decided on keeping the trio of Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor and Brandon Bostick over Matthew Mulligan, D.J. Williams and rookie Jake Stoneburner.
The Packers immediately brought Stoneburner back on their practice squad while Jacksonville claimed Williams and Mulligan signed briefly with New England before being released a few days later.
The Packers preached earlier this offseason about improving their run game, but when push came to shove they opted to part ways with their two most proven healthy blockers, Mulligan and Williams, in favor of the uncertainty of upside.
Stoneburner had an inkling a scenario like this might play out when he signed with the Packers for $5,000 in April as an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, but even he was surprised to a certain extent.
“I don’t think I knew how good everyone was,” Stoneburner said. “I knew it was going to be deep, but I didn’t know if Q (Quarless) was going to be healthy, Bostick you weren’t sure and he turned out to be a heck of a player. You weren’t really sure what was going to happen.”
Mulligan was the Packers’ only offseason acquisition with any previous NFL experience and seemed to meet Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s mandate for a burly, hard-nosed blocker with his 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame.
After veteran Tom Crabtree set sail for Tampa Bay, Mulligan figured to be the team’s run-blocking ace before succumbing to an arm injury that held him out a week midway through camp.
The real issue was Mulligan wasn’t able to show he's head and shoulders better as a run-blocker than Quarless, a former fifth-round pick out of Penn State who hasn’t played in a NFL regular-season game in 19 months after blowing out his knee in a scary incident near the end of the 2011 season.
At the time of the injury, Quarless was progressing to being perhaps the team’s most well-rounded tight end as both a receiver and blocker. A quad injury kept him out for a couple weeks of camp, but the 6-foot-4, 252-pound tight end evidently proved he has a higher ceiling than the one-dimensional Mulligan and Williams, an expendable jack-of-all-trades prospect in a room full of tight ends with defined roles.
“I just know more is going to be asked of him now because of those two guys being gone,” Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “Is it particularly for the run game? No, not really – just all the way around.”
“I think that with the structure of our offense being what it is. I think Matthew is a great guy. He works hard and he does everything the way that you ask him to do it. At the end of the day, you just have to evaluate is he going to help us as much as so-and-so at any other position? In terms of what we have in our room, I think we have a lot of balance and a lot of variation. We have some deep threats, so it was our position this year maybe a little bit more vulnerable to change, obviously. With that being said no strikes against (Mulligan). I think personally it was just a numbers issue than anything else.”
A year after the Packers selected Quarless in the fifth round, they dipped back into the tight-end pool in the same round of the 2011 draft to nab Williams, an undersized but record-setting tight end out of Arkansas.
Williams put together two fine training camps to start his career in Green Bay, but wasn’t able to translate it into regular-season games. In 26 appearances, he registered only nine receptions for 70 yards.
He appeared to be in line for his biggest professional breakthrough last October when he was slated to start in place of an ailing Finley, but Williams developed a hamstring injury in the week leading up to the game. He wound up sitting while Finley played.
Williams quietly forged himself into a proficient blocking tight end over the past two years despite his size (6-2, 238), but other bigger and lengthier prospects like Bostick emerged.
Bostick, who dabbled as a basketball player at Newberry, still has a ways to go as a blocker and on special teams – which he seldom played in college – but the infatuation with tall, athletic tight ends never has been more paramount in the NFL.
After spending a year on the Packers’ practice squad, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound project had developed to the point it would’ve been tricky to stash him there again.
“Those guys are nice to have,” Fontenot said. “It’s even nicer when they’re willing to stick their nose in the dirt and get dirty a little bit with the defensive alignment and block. He’s one of those guys who’s going to do whatever we ask him to do.
“He’s shown what he can do catching the football with his speed, separation in routes and being a big body out there going up and powering for the football and making really great catches in practice. Now the challenge is let’s go do this on Sunday and get out of this as much as we possibly can.”
The great unknown
In the end, intrigue bested experience. It might not be a bad approach, either, considering Finley’s $8.25 million price tag this season and the fact he’s scheduled to hit the free agent market afterward.
Could a possible in-house replacement be on the roster? Possibly, but the Packers saw enough to know Mulligan and Williams weren’t the long-term answer and drifted away from familiarity.
Instead, they’re gambling on projections and mystery with even a practice-squad tight end like Stoneburner hoping he could get inserted into the picture at some point this season.
Given Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson's penchant for utilizing tight ends, he very well might have point.
“With how much they use the tight ends and the type of offense they have, I feel like this is a perfect spot, especially with Jermichael and Andrew being free agents next year,” Stoneburner said. “There could just be two of us left next year and that’s a big opportunity for me. I just have to be patient. I just got my foot in the door right now so I can’t complain.”
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