Need remains for Packers at tight end
This is Part 3 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the tight ends.
The reasons behind Mike McCarthy’s decision to fire long-time assistant Jerry Fontenot won’t be known until after the Green Bay Packers coach finalizes his staff for 2016.
What’s apparent is McCarthy clearly felt Fontenot didn’t do enough with a tight-end position that remains a weakness in the offense. That has been the case since Jermichael Finley sustained a career-ending neck injury in October 2013, but it became even more obvious this season in an offense marred by inconsistency.
"Philosophically to me, to have a successful passing game you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver," said McCarthy last week.
The Packers had neither in 2015.
Green Bay’s tight ends, who were led by former third-round pick Richard Rodgers, were more productive than a year ago, but still finished near the bottom of the league with 73 catches, 643 yards (8.8 yards per catch) and nine touchdowns. Furthermore, the unit’s blocking didn’t make as much progress as hoped.
In the end, Fontenot and running backs coach Sam Gash paid the price for an offense that finished 23rd in total yards and struggled in third-down situations.
The truth is Fontenot, a member of McCarthy’s first staff in 2006, wasn’t spinning any of the four tight ends on the team’s active roster into Finley. Play-making tight ends are hard to come by and sometimes even more difficult to harness.
Rodgers possesses good hands and a professional temperament, but has limitations that make him better suited for a part-time role than an every-down tight end playing 70 percent of the offense’s snaps. The problem is trying to find that individual with many college programs de-emphasizing the position.
Even if the Packers would have used a high pick on a tight end in last year’s draft, it’s unlikely anyone would have come into Green Bay and knocked people's socks off. In fact, the most productive rookie tight end, the New York Giants’ Will Tye (42 catches, 464 yards, three touchdowns), wasn’t even drafted.
General manager Ted Thompson has window-shopped at the position in each of the last two offseasons but hasn’t pulled out the checkbook. The Packers brought in Owen Daniels for a visit in March 2014 and kicked the tires on former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham in August.
A day after Gresham’s visit with the Packers, the two-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract with Arizona that included a $1.25 million base salary and $1 million signing bonus. It’s a steep price to pay for a tight end coming off back surgery, but it filled a need for the Cardinals.
All indications are Gresham was a good citizen in Arizona after he gained a reputation for being difficult in Cincinnati. He’s also considered a capable run-blocker, which is something Green Bay sorely needed this season.
The needs haven't changed for Green Bay. The Packers soon are expected to announce the hiring of Brian Angelichio as their new tight ends coach, as Fox Sports reported last week. This past season, the 43-year-old Angelichio oversaw the development of veteran Gary Barnidge from a little-used journeyman to 1,000-yard receiver.
In 2016, the Packers hope he can work the same magic in Green Bay.
Rodgers is what he is — a solid pass-catcher with limited ability after the catch who struggles with blocking assignments. The Packers knew this and still forged ahead with him and Andrew Quarless as their tight-end tandem. A third-round pick in 2014, Rodgers has good hands as advertised, allowing him to gain Aaron Rodgers’ trust and be productive in the red zone (eight touchdowns).
His two drops on 82 targets were the fourth-fewest among NFL tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus. His 58 catches were second-most on the team and 12th among tight ends, but his lack of explosion is seen in his paltry average of 8.8 yards per catch.
The seam passes once made famous by Finley have been replaced by a 2-yard quick out to Rodgers that needs to go this offseason. Rodgers made the play of the season in pulling down a 61-yard Hail Mary to beat Detroit 27-23 on Dec. 3. He finished with eight catches for 146 yards, marking the first time in more than two years a Green Bay tight end had more than 70 receiving yards in a game. That play alone raised his average yards per catch a full point for the season.
His blocking wasn’t as atrocious as his rookie season, but still leaves something to be desired. Rodgers would benefit from a complementary tight end after playing nearly 70 percent of the offensive snaps this season.
At first blush, Perillo doesn’t look like an NFL tight end. He’s not overly powerful, fast or dynamic, but Perillo is a grinder. A concussion sustained in the preseason opener in New England dealt a heavy blow to his chances of making the 53-man roster.
He returned on the practice squad where he spent the first six weeks before an Oct. 14 promotion to the active roster. He made several big catches when a struggling offense badly needed them against Detroit on Nov. 15, including an 11-yard touchdown in the final minute of the game.
He didn’t do much after the five-catch, 58-yard performance against the Lions and missed three weeks due to a strained hamstring. Perillo didn’t drop any of his 13 targets, but also wasn’t the answer to the tight ends’ blocking woes.
The Packers gave him only a one-year contract upon his promotion, making him an exclusive-rights free agent in March. No reason to think the Packers won’t extend him a contract.
Aaron Rodgers praised Quarless for his improvement and leadership in the spring. That early momentum was halted after a July 4 arrest for allegedly discharging a firearm in public. He eventually reached a plea bargain in November, but still could be subject to league discipline at some point.
Quarless had an underwhelming training camp and never threatened Richard Rodgers for the starting job. He had only two catches for 14 yards in two-plus games before tearing his MCL in Week 3 against Kansas City and landing on temporary injured reserve.
Originally given a six-to-eight-week timeline, Quarless wound up missing three months. He caught two passes for 17 yards and played 55 snaps upon his return before winding up back on injured reserve due to discomfort in the knee. Not the same run and pass blocker he was before blowing his knee out in December 2011.
He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
The Packers’ response to a glaring need at tight end was using their eighth and final pick in the 2015 NFL draft on Backman, a three-year starter at UAB. He struggled with drops early in camp before flashing enough in the final two preseason games to convince the Packers to keep him over Perillo and undrafted rookie Mitchell Henry as the No. 3 tight end.
His 15-yard catch in traffic against Philadelphia in the third preseason game was as fine an adjustment and catch in the middle of the field as you’ll see. His 4.66-second time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day made him the fastest tight end on the roster, but rarely was it utilized once the regular season began.
Perillo leapfrogged him as the No. 2 tight end upon his promotion from the practice squad on Oct. 14. Rarely used on special teams, Backman blew contain on Adam Thielen’s 41-yard fake punt in the regular-season finale against Minnesota.
Backman played only 55 total snaps (11 offense, 44 special teams) in seven games.