If early September induces annual moments of contention between Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson — who are, respectively, the conductor and constructor of each 53-man roster — their history makes the tight end position an unlikely catalyst.
McCarthy, himself an all-conference tight end at Baker University in Kansas, is unabashed in his affection for the position. Be it along the line of scrimmage or split out as a receiver, or even in the backfield like a prototypical fullback, there always are opportunities for tight ends in McCarthy’s offensive system.
“You never have enough tight ends,” McCarthy said during training camp in August. “Just that body type, I think it’s so important to developing your roster because it gives you flexibility throughout not only first, second, third down, but fourth down. So, the tight end position, I’ve spoken on it for 11 years now, I think it definitely gives you the versatility.”
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The composition of Thompson’s 53-man rosters in recent years reflects the fondness of his head coach. Beginning in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl, Thompson has kept at least four tight ends on the initial roster for five consecutive seasons. Once, in 2011, he even kept five: Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, Ryan Taylor and D.J. Williams.
Diminishing talent reduced that number to three in each of the last two years, and in 2016 the Packers retained a trio of Jared Cook, Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo. When injuries at other positions triggered Perillo’s release in mid-November, Cook and Rodgers were asked to finish the season alone, even if it stunted the “three-tight end group” in McCarthy’s playbook.
“We ask a lot of our tight ends,” McCarthy said, “and once again, it’s a unique athlete.”
If the Packers elect to re-sign Cook, who will become an unrestricted free agent in March, the same pairing that walked off the field in Atlanta might be on the sidelines again next fall, and perhaps with a very similar division of responsibility. The question of who might join them, however, is far less clear.
At the moment, before Thompson harvests his cash crop of draft picks and college free agents, rookie Beau Sandland is the leading candidate. Sandland, 23, was a seventh-round pick by the Carolina Panthers last season. He spent part of the year on their practice squad after failing to make the 53-man roster and was released in early November. (In fact, Sandland still has an apartment in Charlotte.)
Cut on Nov. 9, Sandland was unemployed for roughly 48 hours before the Packers swooped in and signed him to their practice squad.
“There were other teams that had reached out to me and reached out to my agent that showed interest, that wanted to bring me in for a workout and physical and everything like that, but Green Bay was the first one,” Sandland said in a phone interview last week. “I think they were the most aggressive. I went up to Green Bay and that’s where I wanted to be. After I visited and saw the facilities and met with the staff and worked out there, it just confirmed that that’s where I wanted to be.”
Sandland, who stands 6-4 ½ and weighs 252 pounds, is an interesting prospect whose path to the NFL was rather circuitous. Born and raised in Southern California, Sandland played two seasons of junior college football before transferring to the University of Miami for one year and Montana State for two.
With his combination of size, decent speed (4.73 seconds), solid athleticism (35-inch vertical leap) and long arms (34 ¼ inches), Sandland intrigued some scouts and appeared more blasé to others. Of the five personnel men who spoke to the Journal Sentinel about Sandland before the 2016 draft, their projections ranged from fifth-round pick to free agent.
“I know I’ve had an unconventional journey to where I am, being a junior college guy and then two different colleges and now two different NFL teams in one year,” Sandland said. “At the end of the day that’s not ideal. Just like getting married, you don’t want to do it five or six times. You want to do it once and you want it to stick.
“I think the worst thing you can do is let it shake your confidence. I think what happens to some guys is they’ll get cut a time or two and all of a sudden they get shell-shocked and they start thinking, ‘Am I good? Can I play in the NFL?’ It’s easy to let that creep into your head because, let’s face it, you’re getting cut and getting fired and you’re pretty much getting told, ‘Hey, we like you but we don’t like you enough to keep you. We’d rather have this other guy here instead of you.’ It’s obviously not something that’s fun, but at the end of the day you have to be mentally tough. You just have to keep going.”
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Sandland wants to keep going with the Packers for two reasons. The first, naturally, is McCarthy’s wide-ranging vision for how the tight end position works.
Sandland signed with the Packers just as Cook completed his recovery from a high ankle sprain. When he saw the ways in which Cook transformed the entire offense, especially in the playoffs – something quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed out repeatedly down the stretch – his eagerness to remain in Green Bay quickly spiked.
“To see the difference in the offense in our production and in our stats when Jared came in, to me it was just like wow,” Sandland said. “He was an X-factor in the way they were able to use that Y position in the offense and how he’s able to stretch the field and everything like that. That’s definitely something that’s exciting to look at.”
The second reason Sandland wants to stay in Green Bay is a reflection of his improvement from mid-November through the end of the season. The Packers as an organization are high on Sandland, from the front office that bumped his weekly salary to his position coach, Brian Angelichio, who sang his praises repeatedly during the portions of practice open to the media in December and January.
Sandland and nose tackle Brian Price were the only practice-squad players to receive salary increases during the season. While Sandland’s increase was much more modest – $6,900 per week to $10,000 per week – the gesture reflects the views of the organization.
“Any time you can get a bump in your salary, a little bit extra jingle in your pocket that’s obviously something that every guy would be interested in,” Sandland said. “I guess if a team wasn’t really that interested in you and didn’t see maybe a future in you in the long term, they probably might not want to do that. That was nice.
"Even if I hadn’t have gotten that I still would have felt good about Green Bay and good about my long-term development there and coming back next year, starting fresh.”
Because just like McCarthy said, you can never have enough tight ends.
Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.