As the Green Bay Packers prepared to leave on their 10th annual tailgate tour Tuesday, the moment wasn't lost on Andrew Quarless.
Standing in front of the decorated tour bus, a smile escaped the Brooklyn, N.Y., native's expression. It doesn't seem that long ago the Packers selected him in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Still, there he was — now a sixth-year veteran on a team that's continually growing younger.
Quarless has seen his share of obstacles the past five years. He blew out his knee against the New York Giants on Dec. 4, 2011, and didn't play in another regular-season game for 21 months. Upon his return, he had to fight for a roster spot and claw his way back up the tight end depth chart.
He hasn't missed a game since. In the wake of Jermichael Finley's neck injury, Quarless has started 22 games over the past two years for the Packers, catching 61 passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns.
Now, he's making the rounds on social functions like the tailgate tour, a five-day trek through the state where current and former players visit schools, hospitals and retirement facilities.
"I think I came a long way," Quarless said. "I started at Penn State and my high school career back in New York, so to be here today standing in front of you guys is a blessing to me. I'm just trying to continue to grow throughout my career. Really get to the level I know I can get at. This offseason has been really important for me and I've been really preparing."
Quarless, 26, said his game continues to grow despite his past two seasons closely resembling each other. He improved his yards-per-catch from 9.8 to 11.1, but the statistics are nearly identical otherwise (32-312-2 in 2013 and 29-323-3 last season).
The Packers went into last season with rookie third-round draft choice Richard Rodgers projected as the starter, but his inexperience showed early. Quarless usurped him for the top spot in Week 4 and played 630 offensive snaps the rest of the season.
His finest hour came against the Miami Dolphins in Week 6 when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Aaron Rodgers with 4 seconds left. A few weeks later, Rodgers went back to Quarless on the goal-line but New Orleans cornerback David Hawthorne darted in front of him for an interception. It was the turning point in a 44-23 loss.
Consistency has been the issue to this point in Quarless' career. His position coach, Jerry Fontenot, has reiterated on several occasions the need for the 6-foot-4, 252-pound tight end to hone his fundamentals and expand his yards after the catch.
Quarless acknowledges this season's importance. He'll be an unrestricted free agent next offseason after agreeing to a two-year, $3 million deal a year ago. He still believes he can be the difference-making tight end the offense has lacked since Finley's departure.
"I consider myself the top echelon of tight ends," Quarless said. "That's really where I see myself and that's really where I'm trying to take it. A couple other guys like (Rob Gronkowski) and a couple guys who are up there. I put myself in that bracket. That's definitely where I'm training to be."
This offseason has been about dieting and training for Quarless. It's a general focus on the little things to get himself ready for another year. Like last season, he'll be battling with Rodgers for playing time alongside whomever the Packers add through the draft or college free agency.
The Packers hoped Brandon Bostick would factor into that equation. But they finally washed their hands of the converted receiver after a disappointing season that was underscored by his infamous botched recovery on an onside kick late in January's 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game.
Every tight end on the team has praised Quarless for how he's filled Finley's leadership void in the locker room. He's even continued the tight ends' Christmas card tradition. It's been more difficult to replace Finley's presence on game days.
Receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have thrived in the middle of the field, so a dynamic tight end in the seam hasn't been mandatory. It would add another dimension to the offense if either Quarless or Rodgers could grasp that role, however.
"Andrew's kind of been steady for us where Richard's been a rookie," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at last month's owners meeting in Phoenix. "So I think it's more those guys have been getting more opportunities and definitely cashed in on it; when you're on the same page with the quarterback and it's very healthy."
The re-signing of Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga means the Packers return all of their preferred starters from the league's top-scoring offense last season. The only thing that's missing is the presence of a game-changing tight end.
Could Quarless or Rodgers be that guy? That will be determined in training camp. Right now, all Quarless knows is there's excitement brewing for what the future holds for the offense.
"I do feel good about the offense and everything they've been doing," Quarless said. "We're definitely excited and looking forward to this year."
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