Ignored for too long, tight end now a glaring draft need for Packers
Fourth in a 10-part Packers draft position-preview series: Tight ends.
GREEN BAY - The tight end position is an important one in new head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, both for its role in the pass game but also in LaFleur’s stated desire to have them block in the outside zone run game. It’s a departure of sorts from the previous regime, as Aaron Rodgers acknowledged the position wasn’t a focal point.
General manager Brian Gutekunst said early in the offseason he expected veteran Jimmy Graham to have a good year and re-signed veteran Marcedes Lewis for his leadership and blocking ability. But, the former Jaguar also caught 60 balls (with six touchdowns) in the three seasons new Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was part of the offensive staff with him in Jacksonville. Two young players (Robert Tonyan, Evan Baylis) are also on the roster, but the Packers could move on from every tight end if they chose after this year. With Graham and Lewis in their 30s, the Packers need an infusion of talent.
Priority level: High.
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
The good: The well-rounded tight end LaFleur desires, a more than willing blocker experienced in the wide zone. Was the John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best tight end, catching 49 balls for 760 yards and six touchdowns.
The bad: Still developing physically and needs to continue to work on the technical aspects of route running and run blocking.
Noah Fant, Iowa
The good: A freakish athlete, running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and bench pressing 20 reps. Experienced in the outside zone scheme and caught 78 career passes for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The bad: A rawer prospect than his teammate Hockenson, will have to polish up the physical side of run blocking and route running.
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
The good: Played on three national championship teams, catching 58 passes for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns in three seasons. Has moved around and blocked in-line and out of the backfield. Strong catcher.
The bad: Not a focal point in the pass game so needs more experience in receiving the ball. Also needs to continue to work on strength.
Caleb Wilson, UCLA
The good: Ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. The converted high school quarterback improved every season with the Bruins, ending his career with 60 catches for 965 yards and four touchdowns.
The bad: Missed bulk of 2017 with foot injury, but he did return to play every game in 2018. Also needs to bulk up and add strength for effective blocking and physical route running.
Keenan Brown, Texas State
The good: Initially recruited to Oklahoma State as a wide receiver, then moved to a hybrid tight end/fullback position. Presents athletic mismatches with linebackers; versed in jet sweeps and the screen game.
The bad: Missed 2015 with a Lisfranc injury and didn’t produce at Oklahoma State until transferring to Texas State, and even then had most of his season totals in yards and touchdowns in just three contests.
The Packers have not believed in expending draft capital on this position for quite some time, electing to fill the roster with free agents. It looks like there is a glaring need for a draft pick in LaFleur’s new offense, but there is little history to draw upon.
Recent draft history
Year, Round, Overall: Player, School
2015, 6, 213 overall: Kennard Backman, University of Alabama at Birmingham
2014, 3b, 98 overall: Richard Rodgers, California
A glance at what year the Packers' players at the position are signed through and their age on opening day:
Marcedes Lewis (35)
Evan Baylis (25)
Robert Tonyan (25)
Jimmy Graham (32)