A brief overview of the Packers' tight end position heading into training camp. (July 19, 2017)
Third in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - If the Green Bay Packers' decision to splurge for free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett could be boiled down to a single play, a single moment that tipped their collective hand, it might have taken place in the fourth quarter of a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
On Jan. 15, in the NFC divisional round, the Packers and Cowboys were tied in the waning moments of a thrilling game. Facing third-and-20 on his half of the field, quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled to his left and created an angle for a piercing throw low and toward the left sideline. There, tight end Jared Cook half-knelt and half-slid to make an improbable 35-yard reception that set up a game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby.
The underlying significance of Cook’s catch was the powerful reinforcement of his skill set — big, tall, fast — and an accurate representation of how such traits can transform the tight end position, and in turn coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive system.
Cook, who joined the Packers as a street free agent in 2016, finished the postseason with 18 catches for 229 yards, both of which set new franchise records for tight ends. His regular-season average of 12.6 yards per reception was the highest by a starting Packers tight end since Jermichael Finley averaged 13.9 in 2011. That year, Finley finished with 59 catches for 804 yards in 17 games counting playoffs. Cook had 48 catches for 606 yards in 13 games last season.
“Just a different element kind of in the middle of the field and different places and creating more matchups,” Cook said prior to the NFC championship game. “Create mismatches when needed, get open when needed, being there when (Rodgers) needs me or clearing it out for somebody else to get open, creating different triangles on different parts of the field just to kind of help (Rodgers) out.”
That type of weapon was one that Rodgers enjoyed, evidenced by numerous in-season comments and the unabashed offseason lobbying for Cook to receive a new contract from general manager Ted Thompson. But when negotiations with Cook’s camp went south, Thompson pivoted accordingly by signing Bennett, the top tight end on the market, and Lance Kendricks, a solid contributor for the Los Angeles Rams last season.
After the signings, Rodgers signaled his approval with the revival of a longstanding joke on Twitter: #relax.
“It's going to take time to get them up to speed with the verbiage and the offense,” Rodgers said during organized team activities. “But I think what it does is it gives us some more flexibility to run two tight end sets. I think you have to have confidence now in all three of those guys — Richard (Rodgers) having been here for a number of years now, being a veteran player and playing at a high level for us, and now adding two guys who have done it at other places and add some winning championship mode to this team in Martellus and then Lance with his athleticism and his versatility.”
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Taken together, the trio of Bennett, Kendricks and Richard Rodgers is almost certainly the deepest collection of tight ends in McCarthy’s tenure as coach. Those three players combined for 135 catches for 1,471 yards and 11 touchdowns last season for the Patriots, Rams and Packers, respectively.
Cook’s performance reiterated the importance of dynamic athletes at the tight end position. And even though he’s gone, this year's group should be even better.
TIGHT ENDS (5)
Martellus Bennett (Ht.: 6-6⅛; Wt.: 275; Age: 30; Acquired: FA-’17; College: Texas A&M)
Come training camp, Bennett is likely to be the focal point of fans all around Ray Nitschke Field due in large part to his sheer size. At 6-foot-6⅛ and 275 pounds, Bennett dwarfs every skill position player on the roster. He looks like a high school football player at a peewee practice, and his dimensions are nearly identical to those of former Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers. It is impossible not to notice him and, the Packers hope, impossible for linebackers or defensive backs to cover him.
He came to Green Bay for the chance to win another Super Bowl.
“I was only in the playoffs once before last year going to the Super Bowl,” Bennett said during OTAs. “But for a long time, you had this idea of something. This beautiful thing out there that you'd never seen it, never really touched it, or you may see it or things like that, watch it on TV, but when you're in that moment, and you get to enjoy it, get to experience it, then you get that taste — this is why I do this. It took me 10 years to get there, but it's like ‘This is why I've been practicing.’”
Richard Rodgers (Ht.: 6-4; Wt.: 260; Age: 25; Acquired: D3-'14; College: California)
Rodgers watched his playing time erode last season as Cook became a focal point of the offense. He averaged 51.2 snaps per game in the six games without Cook, who battled an ankle injury, and only 27.7 snaps in the 13 games with Cook — a far cry from his role as the unquestioned starter in 2015.
A few months have passed and snaps might be even harder to come by in 2017, just as Rodgers enters the final year of his rookie contract. Barring injury, the Packers have relied on two tight ends for each of the last two seasons: Rodgers and Justin Perillo in 2015; Rodgers and Cook in 2016. Now there is a legitimate three-headed attack and only so many snaps to go around.
“Rich has just gone about his business,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said during OTAs. “I mean, he’s a pro, he understands it, the best guys that give us the best opportunity to win will play, and for him to go out and continue to work because obviously he has good hands and he has made big catches, so honestly, he’s approached every day just like he has every day since I’ve been here.”
Lance Kendricks (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 250; Age: 29; Acquired: FA-'17; College: Wisconsin)
Kendricks, who caught 50 passes for 499 yards and two touchdowns for the Rams in 2016, was surprised to find out he had been released during the offseason. Within the context of a 4-12 team — in which frustration is often the prevailing sentiment — Kendricks thought he performed fairly well given the circumstances.
But the former Wisconsin standout is thrilled to be back in his home state and catching passes from Aaron Rodgers, a player with whom he developed a friendship during annual offseason workouts at the same facility in California. The foundation of an on-field relationship was already in place.
“He's a fantastic guy,” Rodgers said. “He's been quickly assimilated into the locker room and is getting to know the guys. He's just a really positive influence on us. I've known him for a couple years now, working out in the offseason together. But it's been really good having him and Marty as well.”
Though he is smaller than Bennett, who is considered among the best blocking tight ends in the league, Kendricks is also valued in the trenches. In that regard, both players are significant upgrades from Cook, who was always a willing blocker but lacked the girth and foundation to find consistent success.
Beau Sandland (Ht.: 6-4½; Wt.: 252; Age: 24; Acquired: FA-’16; College: Montana State)
Sandland was a seventh-round pick of the Carolina Panthers last season but failed to make the 53-man roster. He spent part of the year on Carolina’s practice squad before getting released in early November. The Packers signed him to their own practice squad within 48 hours.
Though he remained on the practice squad all season, Sandland received more and more praise from Angelichio as the calendar flipped from December to January. He is an interesting prospect with good size, adequate speed (4.73 seconds) and a collegiate career that included a stop at the University of Miami. (At one point Sandland was the No. 15 junior college recruit in the country, according to ESPN.)
The Packers gave him a modest salary bump late in the season to reflect their interest in his long-term ability.
“We’ll obviously find out more about him now that he’s had a chance to learn the offense, get more familiar with it,” Angelichio said. “We’ll see when we get into training camp. I think training camp will be big for him.”
Aaron Peck (Ht.: 6-2½; Wt.: 239; Age: 22; Acquired: FA-’17; College: Fresno State)
The Packers signed Peck as an undrafted free agent after a five-year career at Fresno State, where he played exclusively wide receiver. The early parts of his college career overlapped with Packers wide receiver Davante Adams and Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. He finished with 92 catches for 1,206 yards and six touchdowns.
Peck flew to Green Bay for a pre-draft visit and chose to sign with the Packers over the Kansas City Chiefs. He played both outside and in the slot during his time at Fresno State but spent a good portion of his pre-draft workouts getting comfortable in a three-point stance.
“In college, I was a big receiver who was physical but quick at the same time,” Peck said in May. “I can play outside or the slot, wherever you need me to catch the ball. … I’m excited for (tight end). New challenge for me. It’s going to be some extra work.”