How the Packers two-TE plan came together

Ryan Wood
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New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) against the Los Angeles Rams at Gillette Stadium in December 2016.

GREEN BAY - It hadn't been 24 hours after the worst phone call of Lance Kendricks’ career when the former Wisconsin tight end and Milwaukee native woke up to another, this one with a familiar area code.

It was sunrise in southern California. Kendricks was still asleep. His wife, Danielle, startled him awake.

“Hey,” she said, “Green Bay is trying to reach you.”

The previous day, Kendricks had hung up after a conversation with Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead. After six seasons, the Rams were releasing their former second-round pick. Kendricks, even now, said he didn’t understand.

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He played some of his best football in 2016. He caught a career-high 50 passes for 499 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And he did it playing with quarterbacks named Case Keenum and Jared Goff.

But the Rams, after another losing season, were shaving salary cap. Releasing Kendricks meant they could save $4.25 million.

So Snead picked up the phone and dialed.

“I was pretty surprised,” Kendricks said. “I thought I played well this year. I thought I was pretty consistent. Going 4-12, nobody is going to be perfect obviously, and nobody had a great year. But I thought I was pretty established, and I thought that the new coaches would appreciate what I did.”

That was Thursday. By Friday morning, the Packers were calling.

The timeline wasn't a coincidence.

General manager Ted Thompson and chief negotiator Russ Ball spent the previous evening — the first night of free agency — trying to work out a deal with Jared Cook. They wanted Cook but, consistent with their approach to each free agent this spring, were unwilling to cross a specific line in the sand. When those talks ended, the Packers wasted no time devising Plan B.

It started with former New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, but didn’t end there. From the beginning, Thompson sought out to sign two tight ends.

“Honestly, Green Bay was the first and only team that I believe had an opportunity to even reach out to me,” Kendricks said, “because it happened so fast. About 2 p.m. that Friday afternoon, I was already on a flight heading to Green Bay. They pretty much jumped on the opportunity right away, and there wasn’t an opportunity for another team to even try.”

On the same Friday, the Packers hosted Bennett and Kendricks. They worked out deals almost simultaneously, within 24 hours of their arrival. Together, they’ll give coach Mike McCarthy his best tight end tandem in 12 seasons scheming the Packers offense.

Both tight ends signed team-friendly deals. Bennett’s three-year, $21 million contract counts $3.85 million against the 2017 salary cap. Kendricks’ two-year, $4 million contract counts $1.775 million against the 2017 cap. In both, only the signing bonuses are guaranteed — $6.3 million for Bennett, $1.2 million for Kendricks.

The Packers entered free agency with almost $40 million in cap space this season. They used just $5.625 to sign their dynamic set of tight ends. It’s safe to expect good value on their investment. In 2016, Bennett and Kendricks combined for 105 catches, 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns.

There is only one football, of course. But neither complained about sharing the offense — and targets from Aaron Rodgers — when they spoke with reporters Tuesday for the first time since signing with the Packers.

“I can do a lot of (expletive),” Bennett said.

So can Kendricks.

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Los Angeles Rams tight end Lance Kendricks carries the ball against the Detroit Lions during the second half on Oct. 16, 2016, in Detroit.

Finally, McCarthy has the freedom to be creative with his tight ends. It isn’t hard to see Bennett, a mauling blocker and 6-foot-6 physical presence down the middle of the field, lining up in-line with Kendricks in the slot. Sometimes, they’ll flip.

Tight ends are queens on McCarthy’s chess board. He can use them any which way.

“He loves tight ends,” Kendricks said, “and it’s been a while since they’ve been able to run some sort of two-tight-end sets. I’m able to play all over the field, as you may know. I play in the backfield, I play on line, I play split out. I’m sure they’re going to do something similar like that.

“They’ll probably have me split out here, and then backfield here, in line.”

Kendricks knows what a good tight end can do with Aaron Rodgers. He was a consensus All-American with the Badgers in 2010, the same year Rodgers led the Packers to their Super Bowl title.

With the Rams, Kendricks said his offense watched “a ton of film” of the Packers, specifically how Rodgers would draw opposing defenses offside with his hard count — then take a shot deep every time he drew a flag. Kendricks worked out at the same facility as Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and left tackle David Bakthiari in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a little north of Los Angeles, and would “pick their brains” every offseason.

Bennett also knows how Rodgers uses a tight end. He watched from inside the division for three seasons with the Chicago Bears, and before that when close friend Jermichael Finley was Rodgers’ go-to target in the middle of the field.

“I’ve seen every single catch that J-Mike made over his career,” Bennett said. “Every single pass that he caught, I’ve watched a lot of those tapes already. So historically, it’s always been good, if you go back to Bubba Franks. Jared Cook played well there last year. Richard (Rodgers) has done a good job.

“So I’m just trying to come in and play some football really. All of us are a little bit different, so it will be interesting to see how I’m utilized this year.”

What the Packers newest tight ends don’t know — at least not yet — is each other. Unlike Finley, Bennett never crossed paths with Kendricks. They’ll build chemistry as they go.

But Kendricks has heard enough about Bennett to be encouraged, even excited. James White, his teammate at Wisconsin, shared a locker room with Bennett last season in New England. With the Rams, Kendricks was teammates for two seasons with Patriots receiver Danny Amendola.

Kendricks said both shared good reviews.

“All I’ve been hearing is he’s a great teammate,” Kendricks said. “For me, that’s very good to know. When you can work with someone well, it makes things – it makes life easier, and it makes our job easier. It makes everything easier.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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