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GREEN BAY – Now that the better part of free agency is over, the Green Bay Packers are preparing for the draft.
And those unsigned free agents of their own?
They’re drawing little interest from the Packers.
Tight end Richard Rodgers became the second free agent in a week to sign a modest one-year deal with another team after receiving only cursory interest from the Packers. Rodgers agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Eagles, the team announced.
Last week, the Packers let special-teams ace Jeff Janis leave with little resistance. Janis signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with no guaranteed money with the Cleveland Browns. It wouldn’t have taken much for the Packers to match that offer.
But general manager Brian Gutekunst is rolling the dice on the 2018 draft, where he not only needs cornerback and pass rush help but also now needs a tight end to develop, probably a wide receiver and more than likely a guard.
Unless Gutekunst makes some trades or signs some free agents yet to be cut from their current team, a lot will be riding on the 12 picks the Packers hold in this year’s draft.
It’s not too surprising the Packers let Rodgers leave. They signed free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract in March to be their starter. Graham is 31 and won’t play forever, but the Packers think he can still stretch the field.
The Packers started phasing out Rodgers last year. They signed two tight ends, unrestricted free agent Martellus Bennett and street free agent Lance Kendricks. Bennett became the instant starter and Kendricks, a faster, more adept blocker, became the No. 2.
As a result, Rodgers’ play time dropped to 29.2 percent of the offensive snaps. He had played 38.3 percent in 2016, 61.6 percent in ’15 and 45.6 percent in ’14. Rodgers had almost zero connection with backup Brett Hundley, who played half the season, and wound up with just 12 catches for 160 yards and one touchdown.
His catches represented just 21.4 percent of the tight ends' contribution last year and that includes the second half of the season when Bennett was released and Rodgers and Kendricks were the only tight ends left.
The 6-4, 260-pound Rodgers was a big tight end with great hands and no speed. The Packers hoped to turn him into a possession receiver who could at times slip down the middle of the field and split the safeties for a big catch.
Rodgers did that at times, but even after dropping weight his second season, he never showed an ability to break tackles in the open field and gave way to faster tight ends such as Jared Cook, Bennett and Kendricks.
His career receiving yards average of 9.7 said it all.
Rodgers’ greatest moment as a Packer came on Dec. 3, 2015, when he caught a Hail Mary pass against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in a game the Packers had to win. On the final play of the game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers heaved a 61-yard pass that Rodgers high-pointed with two hands and caught amid a scrum of players in the end zone.
Rodgers, 26, played in all but one game during his four seasons with the Packers and caught 120 passes for 1,166 yards and 13 touchdowns. His best season was in 2015 when he caught 58 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns.
In addition to Graham and Kendricks, the Packers’ only other tight end is Emanuel Byrd, who spent most of the season on the practice squad and caught two passes for 31 yards in the regular-season finale against the Lions.