It's hard to watch a Green Bay Packers game this season and not wonder: Where's Brandon Bostick?
He's the team's most physically gifted tight end. He's also played only seven snaps on offense in the last five games.
The Packers haven't been overly secretive about why he's not playing. Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said Thursday that Bostick is making too many errors in practice on the finer points of the game, such as adjusting pass routes on the fly.
"Physically he's done some really good things," Fontenot said. "It's hard to argue what you see on tape. The other part of that — it's hard to assess from an outside perspective what's going on with the mental part of the game. You'll know when I think he's ready to be contributing at a more substantial level."
What makes Bostick's forgotten-man status difficult to understand is that he showed playmaking potential late last season, and the Packers' offense could use the help. Though their No. 26 ranking in yards is deceivingly low, their No. 8 ranking in points shows that through six games they haven't been the scoring machine they were expecting, either.
A tight end who can make a play or two per game down the middle seam, or who can catch a short pass and turn it into a 20-yard-plus gain, would be a boon for the running game and wide receivers alike. Bostick's performance through a five-game stretch late last season (seven receptions for a 17.1-yard average) suggested he might be that kind of player.
Yet, six games into the season, and even though he plays for a coach who's willing to play tight ends liberally, Bostick can't get on the field. Instead, the Packers' tight end position has been quiet, with Andrew Quarless (12 receptions, 8.9-yard average) and third-round pick Richard Rodgers (two catches) sharing the playing time with limited impact.
So what happened to Bostick, the converted small-college receiver who made the Packers' roster last year after spending 2012 on their practice squad?
Yes, he missed valuable offseason practices while recovering from foot surgery. And yes, he sustained a hairline break in his fibula in the second preseason game that sidelined him through the regular-season opener at Seattle.
But he's been working in the Packers' offense since 2012, whereas one of the players ahead of him, Rodgers, entered the NFL in May.
So did Bostick suddenly forget how to play? Is something missing that was never there? Or are the Packers erring in not giving him a chance on game day?
In an interview Wednesday, Bostick offered little insight. He said he's asked Fontenot what he needs to work on, and Fontenot said Bostick is well aware of why he's not playing.
Bostick said he's been healthy enough to play on offense since returning from his injury in Week 2, and that he's been full strength the last two weeks. He's in good shape (257 pounds, three under his 260-pound maximum).
When pressed, he said several times that Quarless and Rodgers have earned their playing time, and that eventually he'll get his chance.
"I'm a little disappointed in myself," Bostick said. "Just the fact that I know I can play out there. But I'm not a selfish player, so I'll do whatever the team needs me (to). Right now, it's on special teams."
In fact, teams sometimes get better when they're forced to play a player more than they want to. I suspect that will be the case for the Packers at receiver, where second-round pick Davante Adams took over the No. 3 job three weeks ago because of Jarrett Boykin's pulled groin muscle. Adams will make some mistakes over the next couple of months, but he's also making plays, and he'll probably be the better player by season's end. He already might be there.
So part of you wonders if the Packers should play Bostick more, warts and all. He's the fastest and most talented receiver among their tight ends, and playing him could pay off weeks down the road.
But there's also a line where the errors become too costly. When receivers miss route adjustments and signals at the line, they cause interceptions and blow third downs, which can change games. You get the sense that Bostick's mistakes, unlike Adams', are too frequent.
Last year Bostick worked into the rotation mid-year largely by default after Jermichael Finley's season-ending neck injury. The only other tight ends on the roster were Quarless; Ryan Taylor, who was primarily a special-teams player; and Jake Stoneburner, an undrafted rookie.
"The benefit we have now is we don't have to throw Brandon in," Fontenot said. "We have two guys that are doing what we want the way we want it. Not perfectly, mind you, but they're making steps toward getting there, (so) that we don't have to allow mistakes in order to get the learning curve steepened."
Bostick's flashes of good play last season — the speed to threaten the seam, the strength to break tackles running after the catch — suggested he could be the starter this season. Just before his injury, he and Rodgers were doing enough to make regular practice attendees wonder if Quarless was going to be the one having trouble getting onto the field.
Instead, Bostick has become the forgotten player. The suspicion here is that he became a little complacent or entitled despite his small-college and undrafted background. Maybe he assumed that when he returned from the cracked bone in his leg, he'd automatically be back in the playing rotation.
He almost surely will get his chance this season, maybe sooner, maybe later. If nothing else, an injury probably will open the door.
Still, it's perplexing that with the playing time there for the taking, Bostick hasn't taken it. He looks like he has the ability to be a good tight end in the NFL, but his current course could just as easily wash him out of the league in a year or two.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty