Packers showing a tight end makeover

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers tight end Kennard Backman leaps over Cleveland Browns free safety Derrick Kindred.

GREEN BAY - There’s no other way to interpret what happened at the Green Bay Packers tight end position this offseason than to say general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t live with what they had.

So, they replaced position coach Jerry Fontenot with former Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, told Richard Rodgers to lose 17 pounds, signed Jared Cook off the street and made it known to Justin Perillo and Kennard Backman that much, much more would be expected of them this season.

It was a makeover of a calculable degree and a definite statement where things were headed this season.

“I think we have a great room,” said tight end Justin Perillo, the Packers’ offensive star in their 17-11 exhibition opening victory Friday night at Lambeau Field. “We’re deeper. Richard had a good year. He had eight touchdowns.

“We made a great addition bringing in Jared Cook. He can catch and run block and having him around has been great. He can help us with running better routes and reading defenses and attacking coverages.”

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Perillo was the middle-field threat the Packers envisioned him to be with five catches for 52 yards against the Browns. Rodgers and Cook were on the field together for the first play, but they barely worked up a lather before they were taken out for the duration.

Rodgers’ numbers might have looked good — 58 catches for 510 yards and eight touchdowns — but his 8.8-yard per catch average ranked second last among the top 25 tight ends in receptions. His only catch of 40 or more yards was a Hail Mary he caught to win at Detroit on Dec. 3.

It’s the main reason Thompson went out and signed Cook to a one-year, $2.75 million show-me contract. Cook had a down year with St. Louis, but still averaged 12.3 yards on 39 receptions.

After missing much of the offseason workouts with a broken foot, Cook was removed from the physically unable to perform list Tuesday and deemed ready to play in a game with just two practices under his belt.

He said he didn’t have a certain package of plays set up for him and just ran the offense as it was called.

“I just wanted to get some live reps,” Cook said after catching two passes for 10 yards.

Cook signed with the Packers because he wanted to play with Aaron Rodgers, but his first action was with undrafted free agent Joe Callahan, a Division III prospect from Wesley College. His first big play deep down the middle wasn’t going to occur Friday night with Callahan getting his feet under him early in his first NFL action.

On the first series, however, Callahan hit Cook running toward the Browns sideline on third and 7 and watched the tight end turn it up field for 8 yards. On the second series, he hit Cook for gains of 2 and 4 yards, the second of which was nullified by a holding penalty.

That ended his night.

Then the action swung toward Perillo. On the first play of the Packers’ third series, Callahan saw Perillo break wide open into the middle on what looked like a busted Browns coverage and hit him for an 18-yard gain.

Later, Callahan hit Perillo for a pair of first downs,  a 9-yard completion on second and 8 and a 15-yard completion on third and 7. The latter came during a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the 2-minute offense.

“He’s a big target for me tonight,” Callahan said of Perillo. “Tight end was one of the positions I targeted tonight a lot. That’s the way it goes sometimes. We have a lot of tight ends.”

Perillo most played mostly as an extended tight end in college, lining up in the slot or wide like a receiver. Blocking has been his weak point and it prevented him from being a bigger part of the passing game.

The addition of Angelichio has helped him be a better overall tight end, Perillo said.

“I think coach has taught me a lot about run blocking and route running. He’s a good coach and we have a really good room of tight ends.

“My first year, I was active like once in Week 10 and then last year I got more playing time and it helped build my confidence and build Aaron’s confidence in me. I needed to improve my blocking this year. I needed to improve on everything.”

Also contributing against the Browns was Backman, who caught three of the four passes he was targeted on for 28 yards. His big catch was an 18-yarder in which he and Callahan hooked up on a quick hitter that allowed Backman to use his speed to get down to the 5-yard line.

After being inactive much of the year as a rookie Backman has to turn it on this year. He and Perillo are fighting for the No. 3 spot, although they seem to be pushing each other in a good way.

“I was very happy,” Perillo said after Backman’s big catch. “We’re all just happy for each other.”

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