Young tight ends fill out Rodgers' arsenal
When the season started, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers faced a challenge he never had in his previous six years as a starter.
Tight end has rarely been a worrisome position for the Packers over the past two decades. Brett Favre had Mark Chmura, Keith Jackson and Bubba Franks. Rodgers transitioned from Donald Lee to Jermichael Finley.
Finley's career was cut short because of a neck injury last season. Suddenly, a position of strength became a major need. After final cuts in August, Green Bay had four tight ends on its 53-man roster.
Between them, they had only seven seasons of experience.
So Rodgers ventured into the unknown. Tight end, a quarterback's security blanket, would need to be nurtured as the season progressed. That Rodgers is the presumptive MVP shows how well he's navigated his new challenge.
It also highlights how far Green Bay's tight ends have come since August.
Some of the Packers' signature moments this season involved a tight end. At critical times, they delivered. There was Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless in the final seconds at Miami. There was Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass to rookie Richard Rodgers in the fourth quarter of a win against Dallas in the NFC divisional playoff round.
It was an eye-opening play for a tight end competing in his first playoff game. Not only did Richard Rodgers have the trust of his quarterback, but he justified that faith in the clutch.
Richard Rodgers may be among the most improved players on the Packers' roster. The rookie had his struggles early in the season. In Green Bay's third game at Detroit, his missed block led to a critical safety.
In the passing game, he didn't fare much better. He had no catches in his first three games, and none in five of his first six.
Slowly, more targets came his way. From Week 7 to Week 13, the rookie caught at least one pass in every game. His consistency may have been most impressive. During that stretch, Aaron Rodgers completed 11-of-15 passes (73 percent) thrown to the rookie tight end. It was a sign of things to come.
Down the stretch, Aaron Rodgers said his rookie tight end may have the best hands on the team. By season's end, Richard Rodgers showed why he earned such high praise. In his final four games — starting at Tampa Bay — he caught 12 of 14 passes (85 percent) thrown to him.
At 6-foot-4 and almost 260 pounds, Rodgers knows how to use his big frame to box out smaller defenders. He's not the fastest tight end, but neither was Finley when he entered the league. Rodgers ran an underwhelming 4.87-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, just .05 seconds slower than Finley's own underwhelming effort.
Brandon Bostick, a former Division II college receiver, seemed to offer the best chance of giving the Packers a speedy tight end. His potential never materialized. After missing the opener with a slight fracture in his right fibula, Bostick never found a rhythm this season. He finished with just two catches for four yards and spent the entire season third on the depth chart.
The fourth tight end, Ryan Taylor, was released on Oct. 6 after three seasons of mostly special teams work.
Green Bay could draft another tight end this offseason. Quarless will return for the back side of his two-year contract. With 29 catches, 323 yards and three touchdowns, the veteran's production mirrored last season's.
But Rodgers appears to be the future for the tight end position. Not only did he improve as a receiver, but he also made some strides as a blocker. It remains one of his biggest areas to improve. He finished with a team-low minus-9.5 grade as a run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus. His plus-2.1 pass block grade was slightly above average.
The similarities between Rodgers and Finley don't stop at a subpar 40-yard dash time.
Rodgers' 20 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns might not jump off the page, but neither did Finley's production in his first season. Finley caught just six passes for 74 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. In his next season, he broke out with 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns.
It will be an important offseason for Rodgers. If he's able to make a similar jump Finley took between his first and second year, it could stabilize the tight end position.
The biggest beneficiary would be Aaron Rodgers.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood