Brian Angelichio says there was no magic formula involved with Gary Barnidge’s transformation from an underutilized journeyman to a 1,000-yard Pro Bowl tight end.
As Angelichio tells it, the Cleveland Browns’ 30-year-old tight end was just another example of a player who seized an opportunity and thrived. Regardless, the Browns unlocked something in Barnidge that went untapped for his first six NFL seasons.
Now, the Green Bay Packers are hoping Angelichio can do likewise with a tight end position that has grown dormant in Green Bay since Jermichael Finley’s career-ending neck injury in 2013.
Barnidge’s 79 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns last season nearly matched the production the Packers have received from their tight ends in the previous two seasons combined (124 receptions, 1,194 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns).
"First of all, it starts with Gary. I give Gary all the credit," Angelichio said shortly after being introduced tight ends coach last Thursday. "His whole career he’s been a hard worker, detailed guy, preparation, film study, true pro. This year he was given the opportunity to be the guy and he took advantage of it."
The Packers' tight-end position has been in flux for years. Scratching in the dirt for a playmaker, the Packers have swung and missed with the likes of D.J. Williams, Brandon Bostick and Colt Lyerla before drafting Richard Rodgers in the third round in 2014.
Rodgers has played pretty much to his pre-draft scouting report — good hands, decent makeup, but slow (4.87 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and limited after the catch. He was second on the team with 58 catches and eight touchdowns, but his 8.8 yards per catch reflected the problems in an anemic passing game.
The recurring issues and Rodgers’ lack of progress in his sophomore campaign resulted in Packers coach Mike McCarthy parting ways with long-time tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, who played for him in New Orleans and was an inaugural member of his coaching staff in 2006.
Fox Sports reported Angelichio’s hiring within days of Fontenot’s release. While he didn’t have any connection to McCarthy, Angelichio was familiar with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, receivers coach Luke Getsy and assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley because of his ties to the University of Pittsburgh football program.
"Rich did a nice job last year, caught the ball well," Angelichio said. "Like everybody, there’s things that we’ve got to continue to get better at: the fundamentals, the details, the techniques. That’s with all players. We’re going through the cutups now, so it’s a continuing process to evaluate him and his skills and the things he does."
Rodgers had a breakout performance against Detroit on Dec. 3 when he caught a 61-yard touchdown on a Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers in a 27-23 win over the Lions, but probably was overextended with Andrew Quarless missing most of the season with a torn medial collateral ligament.
The Packers may very well move on from Quarless this offseason, but still need to make a determination with the rest of the tight ends on the roster. Sixth-round pick Kennard Backman was a virtual redshirt during his rookie season, playing behind former undrafted free agent Justin Perillo.
Perillo, an exclusive-rights free agent, likely will receive a contract before the start of free agency after registering 11 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown last season. The organization also is high on former undrafted rookie Mitchell Henry, who spent the second half of the season on the practice squad.
That’s in addition to any free agents or rookies general manager Ted Thompson adds this offseason. Thompson never has used unrestricted free agency on a tight end or drafted one earlier than the third round in his 10 years in Green Bay, but McCarthy made it clear the offense is in dire need of a difference-maker.
Now that they have their coach it’s up to Thompson to figure out who Angelichio will be working with.
"I’m excited to work with the guys and looking forward to getting the chance to meet them," Angelichio said last week. “They obviously did some good things last year. Rich, I think he had 58 catches last year. … Very good hands. Just going through and continuing to watch the cutups, I’m certainly excited about the progress they’ve made and getting the chance to see them evolve through the season and looking forward to working with them this spring.”