Packers pull surprise, sign Martellus Bennett
GREEN BAY - Just when everybody expected more inaction, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson showed he still has enough life in his arm for a curveball.
After breaking off contract talks with tight end Jared Cook, the Packers signed former New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett on Friday.
The Packers are quite familiar with their new tight end. Bennett, an athletic, 6-foot-6 target who turned 30 on Friday, played three seasons with the Chicago Bears before being traded to the New England Patriots a year ago. Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards (12.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns for the Patriots in 2016.
He became even more important after Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending back surgery. Bennett assumed the role of No. 1 tight end in New England, helping to lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl LI title. He caught five passes for 62 yards in the Super Bowl.
"I wanted another chance to make a run at it,” Bennett told the Packers' team-controlled website. “I want to be in a situation where I could win again right now. I have that victory taste in my mouth and I want to taste it again."
Bennett arrives in Green Bay with a different quarterback history than Cook, who played with 11 listless starters in his first seven seasons. Bennett has played with Pro Bowlers Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Brady.
Now he gets to play with Aaron Rodgers.
Bennett posted a picture to his Instagram account Friday wearing a Packers hat inside Lambeau Field.
That followed a tweet from Rodgers simply telling his fan base to “#relax.”
Terms of the contract weren't known, but Bennett reportedly got a three-year, $21 million deal with no incentives, according to NFL.com.
The Packers initially wanted to re-sign Cook, prioritizing him on the opening day of free agency. A source said the sides were close to a deal Thursday night but reached the point of no compromise, and talks broke down by Friday morning.
“I really like the way he came in and grabbed ahold of our offense,” McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “He’s a playmaker. He’s a matchup problem. He’s given us some vertical stretch, and some one-on-one opportunities that we haven’t had. He fought through a big injury, but I would just like to build off what he accomplished in his first year.”
Thompson’s reversal was hard to predict.
It had been five years since Thompson signed an unrestricted free agent from another team, the longest drought in the NFL. Since then, Thompson occasionally plucked a “street” free agent, including Cook and outside linebacker Julius Peppers. But Thompson’s last foray into unrestricted free agency was March 30, 2012, when he signed defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who was later cut in training camp that year.
Thompson’s preference for “street” free agents is connected to his reputation as a draft and developer. When a player is signed after being cut from another team, it doesn’t affect the formula for compensatory draft picks.
Bennett will count against the Packers’ compensatory draft pick formula next year. He’ll also give an offense dependent on a dynamic receiver to stretch the middle of the field the best tight end on the market.
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Bennett was a second-round draft pick (No. 61 overall) out of Texas A&M in 2008. He played his first four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before signing a one-year deal with the New York Giants in 2012. A year later, Bennett signed with the Bears.
“I hated playing against Aaron,” Bennett told the website. “I just got off the phone with him, I said, ‘I hate that guy on the other side,’ but it’s going to be pretty good to be on the same side with him and catching passes. I’ve seen him make a lot of amazing throws and he’s been one of the best for a really long time. I’m just going to try to come in and contribute to the best of my ability."
Cook signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract last offseason with the understanding a bigger deal could be attained with the Packers when he once again became a free agent.
It’s unclear what the Packers offered Cook. He’s now expected to visit other teams and will not re-sign with the Packers, a source said.
Cook tweeted that he didn't turn down a deal, and thanked Packers fans:
The Packers appeared to have leverage because of a loaded tight end draft class. They could still use a tight end to complement Bennett, but his signing revealed their real leverage with Cook.
Cook helped ignite the Packers' playoff run to the NFC championship game. His 36-yard sideline catch against the Dallas Cowboys set up kicker Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal in the NFC divisional-round game.
Tight end is a key position in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. The Packers had been missing a dynamic athlete to stretch the middle of the field since Jermichael Finley’s career-ending neck injury in 2013. Cook filled that role last season.
Now the starting tight end job will go to Bennett.
"It’s always been one of the best places to play in the NFL with the fans," Bennett told the website, "and the grass is always good there. Which is a huge thing, as well. It’s always been a hostile environment as an away team. It’ll be good for them to be rooting for you instead of against you because that crowd gets crazy."
Meanwhile, guard T.J. Lang continued his trek through free agency, meeting with the Seattle Seahawks on Friday in Seattle. It was Lang’s second visit in two days, the first coming in his hometown of Detroit with the Lions.
A source said that it was unlikely Lang would sign with the Seahawks on Friday night and it appears he will remain unsigned into the weekend. Another source said that more teams were trying to get involved with Lang, but for now it’s the Packers, Seahawks and Lions.
Lang reportedly had a visit scheduled for Denver, but it was canceled after the Broncos signed Dallas guard Ron Leary to a four-year, $35 million deal. It’s likely Lang is seeking far more than that given he is generally considered the best guard left on the market.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed.
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