Lost and overlooked in the Green Bay Packers’ prolific offense, Richard Rodgers wondered where he fit midway through last season.
Opportunities were scarce. Through his first six games, Rodgers had only four passes thrown his way. By October, with his starting job yanked, Rodgers’ rookie season was stalling.
“Halfway through the season,” Rodgers said, “I just wasn’t feeling like I was fitting in correctly.”
It’s a startling admission, because Rodgers finished last year with a chance to be the Packers’ long-term answer at tight end — a solution they’ve needed since the sudden, injury-induced end to Jermichael Finley’s career.
Rodgers didn’t just find a role with the offense last season. He showed up in big spots. The rookie caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of their playoff win against the Dallas Cowboys. In the NFC title game, he had four catches — on five targets — for three first downs against the Seattle Seahawks’ vaunted secondary.
He’s carried the momentum into his second training camp. Rodgers starts the tight end line in position drills, and the rapport with his quarterback is strong.
Rodgers deflected a question that he’s poised to lead the team’s tight end group — the youngster still yields to sixth-year veteran Andrew Quarless — but it’s clear the time is coming.
“He’s capable of being a top-level talent at the tight end position in the league,” Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “It’s just going to be creating opportunities by maximizing the opportunities that you get. That’s the bottom line, because he knows what he can do. He’s a very smart kid. He understands his talent.”
Rodgers may never be Finley, the explosive downfield target with game-changing athleticism. His skills are more subtle. Rodgers is uncommonly consistent, and his quarterback raved about his hands late last season, suggesting they might be the best on the team.
Of the 35 passes thrown to him last year, Rodgers caught 25. He dropped only one pass in 18 games, according to Pro Football Focus. Down the stretch, Rodgers caught 12-of-14 passes thrown to him in his final four games.
“I think the areas that Richard excelled at,” Fontenot said, “were areas that he was able to kind of highlight his talents. He has good hands; we know that. He’s got a big body; he can use it. And he runs routes very efficiently.
“From that aspect, I thought that the quarterback did a good job of getting him into situations that enabled him to use those tools. I think that the offensive coordinator and the play-caller did a great job of that as well. As a result, he got more opportunities.”
Rodgers can’t point to one moment during his rookie season when his head stopped spinning. Gradually, more passes were thrown to him. Regular opportunities helped him feel part of the offense, he said.
Fontenot said the biggest spark for Rodgers’ confidence came when the Packers traveled to Minnesota in late November. He caught only one pass for 1 yard, but it was a touchdown that traveled 40 yards in the air.
Six games later, Rodgers caught the game-winning touchdown against the Cowboys. Fontenot still remembers his young tight end jogging to the sideline afterward. Normally, he said, Rodgers has a “very calm” demeanor. The rookie couldn’t contain his excitement that January afternoon.
“You could tell that he was juiced up for that catch,” Fontenot said. “He loves having a challenge, and a ball thrown like that — at that speed, through that window — it just ignited his fire. I think he’s always known he’s a good football player. I think he realized that this team believes in him, and he’s going to get some opportunities.
“It was good to see. Because he’s a good kid, and he deserves to have success.”
Rodgers knows he’ll have a role in the offense this season. The tight end position is thin, with him and Quarless the only two proven pass-catchers. His next step, Fontenot said, is not in the passing game. Rodgers, a former college receiver, must learn to be a blocker.
Fontenot said he and Rodgers talked “extensively” about his run blocking this offseason. It was an issue last year, with Pro Football Focus handing him a minus-9.5 grade, second-worst on the team.
Individual drills have become Rodgers’ classroom. He’s worked on foot speed and placement with his blocks. He’s focused on pad leverage, not getting too high at the point of contact.
“That’s obviously an important thing as a tight end,” Rodgers said. “I’m just going to continue to get better, watch film and improve any way I can. I talk to the older guys and see if they can give me some pointers. It’s just all about improvement.”
Improvement is a word Rodgers has used a lot lately. After finishing his first season on an uptick, Rodgers knows the importance of this training camp. When the Packers broke from their offseason program in June, Fontenot called it “huge.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy often talks about a player’s progression from his first to second season. Now is the time for Rodgers to make a leap, just as Finley did. Rodgers said he’s ready.
“I don’t know if I feel like I have to make the jump,” he said, “but it would be nice to improve. I improved throughout last season, and I just look to continue the growth. Obviously, that comes with making a jump and getting in shape in the offseason, and just coming in ready to play.
“I think it’s the same thing in college. You go from being a freshman to sophomore, and you make that progression.”