A short overview of the tight end position in Green Bay heading into OTAs and minicamp. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Last in a series looking at the Packers’ key issues entering organized team activities Monday.
GREEN BAY – After the Green Bay Packers’ busiest offseason transaction period in more than a decade, their total remake of the tight end position still stands out as the most significant change.
It was Martellus Bennett’s signing on free agency’s first full day that got the ball rolling. Bennett’s arrival not only was a big surprise after general manager Ted Thompson opened free agency with a predictable decision, signing sacks leader Nick Perry. It signified a complete change in approach for the Packers, whose five free-agent signings were their most in one offseason since 2006.
Bennett, along with tight end Lance Kendricks, removed a major need from the Packers' offseason to-do list. With the tight end position a strength, the Packers could afford to trade back four spots in the draft, swapping their first-round pick with the Cleveland Browns for the first pick in the second round. The Browns used the No. 29 overall pick to draft a tight end, Miami’s David Njoku.
With a bare cupboard at the position (assuming the departure of incumbent Jared Cook), the Packers might've been tempted to take a tight end in the first round. Instead they drafted Kevin King with the 33rd overall pick, a first-round talent they expect to become their No. 1 cornerback. They got Wisconsin edge rusher Vince Biegel with the extra pick acquired in the trade.
Yet using free agency to bolster the Packers' tight end position didn’t just help set up their draft plans. Together, Bennett and Kendricks could represent a fundamental shift in the Packers' offense.
Already, there are signs coach Mike McCarthy plans to change things this fall. At the NFL meetings in Phoenix, McCarthy shared his desire to use more formations with an in-line tight end, an option he believes Bennett gives the offense. It would be a major adjustment from last season, when the Packers often used Cook as an oversized wide receiver.
The vision for how this Packers offense will look in the fall remains an idea on paper, nothing more. It will start crystalizing when the Packers open their organized team activities. Considering their personnel, the Packers' passing game could be similar to that of Bennett’s former team, the New England Patriots.
That’s not to compare the Packers' scheme to the Patriots. There are plenty of differences between McCarthy and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Packers are rooted in the West Coast offense, while the Patriots are among a handful of NFL teams running the Erhardt-Perkins system.
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But McCarthy has made it clear his mission is to attack the middle of the field more, and no team in the NFL does that better than the Patriots.
Other than a Hall of Fame quarterback, the most obvious similarity between the two offenses is their two-tight-end personnel. It’s a formation the Patriots made famous at the turn of this decade, drafting Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth) in 2010. In their rookie season, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 26.2 percent of the Patriots' catches, 27.5 percent of their receiving yards and 43.2 percent of their receiving touchdowns.
Those splits jumped to 42 percent of the team’s catches, 42.5 percent of the receiving yards and 61.5 percent of the receiving touchdowns in the duo’s second season.
It took the Patriots a few years to adjust after Hernandez’ career ended with a murder conviction after the 2012 season. But their two-tight-end personnel returned last season after the Patriots acquired Bennett in a trade with the Chicago Bears. Bennett and Gronkowski combined for 21.7 percent of the Patriots' catches, 27.8 percent of the receiving yards and 31.25 percent of the receiving touchdowns, impressive ratios considering Gronkowski missed half the season because of injuries.
It appears the Patriots' two-tight-end system is here to stay. Before losing Bennett in free agency, they acquired Dwayne Allen in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts.
If McCarthy tailors his offense to match its strength, the Packers will get much more production from their tight ends this fall. In his 12-year tenure, McCarthy occasionally has been gifted a special tight end. He never has had two the caliber of Bennett and Kendricks, who should form the Packers' best tight end duo since Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura in the 1990s.
It’s interesting to look at the timing of the Packers’ remodel. The Patriots reinvented their passing attack after trading Randy Moss early in the 2010 season. Without Moss, they lacked a No. 1 perimeter threat on their roster, so they turned their focus to dominating the middle of the field.
The Packers didn’t trade their No. 1 perimeter threat, receiver Jordy Nelson, last season. But he was clearly a different player after returning from his torn ACL, no longer most effective on the perimeter. Of Nelson’s 148 targets last season, 45.2 percent came from the slot, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Nelson’s gradual improvement last season was attributed to shaking off rust after missing all of 2015 because of major knee surgery. Maybe a bigger factor was his slot usage increasing. Only 25 percent of his snaps came in the slot during the season’s first six games. Nelson, whose 6-foot-3, 215-pound size and savvy route running work well in the middle of the field, lined up in the slot on 46.4 percent of his snaps in his final 10 games.
Results were immediate, starting with a late October trip to Atlanta that kicked off Nelson’s comeback player of the year surge. With his snaps and targets split almost evenly in the slot during his final 10 games, Nelson averaged seven catches, 93.6 yards and 0.9 touchdowns. In his first six games, Nelson averaged 4.5 catches, 53.5 yards and 0.83 touchdowns.
Given his success in the slot, it seems likely the Packers would use a 32-year-old Nelson even more in the middle of the field this fall. If they do, their two highest-paid receivers — Nelson and Randall Cobb — will be best used in the slot. That, too, mirrors the Patriots.
Since 2010, the Patriots have had three No. 1 receivers: Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Each were slot receivers, with Edelman and Amendola sharing the role the past two seasons.
Similarities to the Patriots even extend to the backfield. Ty Montgomery is the Packers' starting running back, but he’s most known for his receiving ability. From Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen to James White, the Patriots long have flourished with a receiving running back as a staple of their passing attack.
To attack the middle of the field, you need tight ends, slot receivers and a running back who can expose linebackers in coverage. The Patriots have been setting that template for years. It appears the Packers have molded themselves the same way.
IF YOU GO
What: Packers open OTA (weather permitting).
When: 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Where: Clarke Hinkle Field.
Note: Standing room only along South Oneida Street. Practice will be moved inside the Don Hutson Center and closed to the public in the event of inclement weather.