Third in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - Veteran newcomer Jared Cook will be counted on for some Finley-esque splash plays, but third-year pro Richard Rodgers would appear to be the Green Bay Packers’ top tight end now and possibly for the next few seasons.
If Rodgers, who was noticeably trimmer this offseason, doesn’t seem to be a fan favorite, so be it. All that matters is the evaluation of the coaching staff.
“Richard Rodgers had a very good year,” associate head coach Tom Clements said in May. “He caught a lot of passes.”
In 18 games, Rodgers ranked second in receptions with 65 and third in yards with 566. Jermichael Finley, whose career was ended by a cervical contusion in October 2013, has the most regular-season catches by a tight end in Green Bay (61) but Rodgers ranks second with 58.
Edgar Bennett, the offensive coordinator, indicated in June that Rodgers had slimmed down and was moving exceptionally well in practices.
“Does it get any better?” said Bennett.
Once the decision was made not to re-sign Andrew Quarless, the Packers waited almost three weeks into free agency before signing Cook off the street for one year at $2.75 million ($825,000 guaranteed).
Also in March, two other veteran tight ends signed one-year deals. Jermaine Gresham re-signed with Arizona for $3.5 million ($3M guaranteed) and Vernon Davis took $2.4 million ($1.1M guaranteed) to depart Denver for Washington.
The Packers worked with Cook, 29, for several weeks this spring before he underwent foot surgery in early June.
“Jared Cook has proven himself in the NFL,” said Clements. “He’s a talented player and should help us.”
Even if Cook is ready for the start of training camp, his turns in practice might be limited. That will increase Rodgers’ chances to control the position as he did a year ago, when his 923 snaps represented 78 percent of playing time by the tight ends.
Rodgers was playing at 272 pounds for a portion of 2015. He has a history of being able to lose and gain substantial weight easily, and this offseason his objective was to lose.
“He’s been working with (strength coach) Mark Lovat and the nutritionist to try and keep his weight where he feels comfortable (it) will allow him to move better,” new position coach Brian Angelichio said. “Honestly, until the pads come on, it’s hard to really judge that.”
Rodgers is a sure-handed, massive target. Redistributing his weight might help him provide more after the catch, but despite his brawn the worst part of his game has been blocking.
“Not a mauler — just a shield guy,” one personnel man said. “Great hands, but doesn’t do anything with it after the catch. He’s a plodder. He’s all right, but that’s not what a tight end should be.”
Rodgers was responsible for 16½ “bad” runs last year after having had 13 as a rookie. His total a year ago was the most by a tight end in Mike McCarthy’s first decade as coach.
Angelichio remembered how Rodgers played most of his final year at California standing up detached from the formation.
“When you look at him from his first year to his second year I think he improved (blocking),” said Angelichio. “It’s hard until you trust your technique and use the snap count as an advantage.
“You’re just looking for consistency. He gives you good effort.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher released Cook in February with two years left on a five-year, $35.1 million contract after watching him drop 10 of 69 passes, according to STATS. His drop rate of 14.5% more than doubled his previous career high of 7% in 2013.
The Tennessee Titans, who drafted Cook in the third round in 2009, gave up on him after four seasons.
“He’s going to flash all the things you want to see,” said an executive in personnel for one of Cook’s first two teams. “Speed, leaping ability, being able to adjust to the catch in the air, making the tough grab.
“Then he’s gonna drop that crossing route across the middle and the coaches are going to start losing confidence in him. They will see he’s not really a great blocker and, at times, he’s really not even willing.
“I think things bother him at times. Whether it’s a contract situation or the number of balls he’s getting or something like that. That could affect Jared.”
Cook has remarkably long arms (35¾ inches), a stunning 41-inch vertical jump and 40-yard dash time of 4.51 from seven years ago, and a score of 25 on the Wonderlic intelligence test.
“We certainly hope he brings that skill set and can run the middle of the field,” Angelichio said. “We just need to get him to play at a consistent level that can help this team win.”
Cook is used to extensive playing time: a career-high 71.4% in 2013, 68.3% in ’14 and 70.3% in ’15.
“Cook has been kind of an underachiever,” another NFL scout said. “To me, he’s just a journeyman tight end but a solid No. 2. The Packers paid him a lot of money to fill a need.”
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Three free agents and sixth-round draft choice Kennard Backman, a nonentity as a rookie, fill out a depth chart that both Clements and Bennett insisted was more than adequate.
“Backman didn’t play much as a rookie,” Clements said. “Hopefully, he’ll make a big jump. When Justin (Perillo) got his opportunities he did a pretty good job.
“The maturation of Richard and Backman plus the addition of Cook will be very helpful.”
PACKERS BY POSITION: TIGHT ENDS
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Richard Rodgers 6-4 260 24 D3-’14 California
Improved drop rate from two of 34 as a rookie to four of 96 in 2015. Also improved run-after-catch average from scant 1.88 in ’14 to 3.62 in ’15.
Jared Cook 6-4½ 254 29 FA-’16 South Carolina
Departed Tennessee for St. Louis as unrestricted free agent in March 2013 for $35.1 million over five years ($19.1M guaranteed). Released in February, still counts $2.6M against Rams’ salary cap.
Kennard Backman 6-3 250 23 D6-’15 UAB
Played 11 snaps from scrimmage (no targets) and 44 snaps on special teams (one tackle). Generally started from 2011-’14 at UAB. 40 time of 4.65.
Justin Perillo 6-3 255 25 FA-’14 Maine
Cut at end of past two training camps but promoted from practice squad at midseason each year. Played 11 snaps as a rookie, 121 last year.
Mitchell Henry 6-3½ 252 23 FA-’15 Western Kentucky
Plucked off practice squad by Broncos in early September. Played one snap from scrimmage, 11 on special teams before returning to Green Bay on practice squad. 40 time of 4.69.
Casey Pierce 6-3 248 24 FA-’16 Kent State
Walk-on QB who quickly moved to TE and was a two-year starter, catching 97 passes (60 in ’14) for 1,040 yards (10.7) and 11 TDs. Spent all ’15 on Lions’ practice squad before being cut May 4. Runs 4.76, vertical jump of 36½ inches, Wonderlic score of 22.
Acquisition categories: D3 means third-round draft choice, FA means free agent.