Packers should seek tight end on market

Pete Dougherty
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Ladarius Green (89) of the San Diego Chargers catches a touchdown pass over Donte Whitner (31) of the Cleveland Browns during an NFL Game on Oct. 4, 2015 in San Diego, Calif.

History says that if the Green Bay Packers want immediate help from a new tight end in 2016, they probably will have to sign one in free agency.

It’s one of their two glaring needs – the other is inside linebacker – but a position where draft picks generally need at least a year before they make much difference.

In the history of the NFL, only nine tight ends have caught 50 or more passes in their rookie season. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but 83 rookie receivers have achieved that.

Keith Jackson has the tight end rookie record with 81 receptions for Philadelphia in 1988. Jeremy Shockey is second with 74 for the New York Giants in 2002. Both were top-15 picks overall.The Packers' first pick is at No. 27.

After that, it drops to Mike Ditka’s 56 (in a 14-game season) in 1961. The rest of the list consists of Minnesota’s John Carlson and Philadelphia’s Charles Young (55 each), New Orleans’ Cam Cleeland and Tampa Bay’s Tim Wright (54 each), Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham (52) and Jacksonville’s Allen Hurns (51).

Packers won't 'chase ghosts' in free agency

What the Packers are desperately missing is a tight end who threatens defenses down the middle of the field. That's one of the reasons defenses were able to play a single-high safety regularly to shut down the Packers' run game.

Jermichael Finley was their tight end who did that. He was a more typical tight end who did little in his rookie season (six catches) before topping the 50-reception mark in three of the next five years, with the other two seasons wiped out by season-ending injuries in the first six games.

In 2016 the Packers return Richard Rodgers, who has excellent hands but no quick-twitch ability (8.8 yards per catch). Also back are second-year pros Kennard Backman and Mitchell Henry, and third-year pro Justin Perillo. Andrew Quarless is a free agent, and there’s no reason to think the Packers will maintain the status quo by re-signing him.

Backman, a sixth-round pick last year, has speed (4.66-second 40) but took part in all of 11 offensive snaps last season. There’s no way to know now if he's a player. Henry and Perillo were signed as undrafted rookies the last two years. Chances are they’re not the tight end we're talking about.

So general manager Ted Thompson will be looking hard at the tight ends in this year’s draft. But if he’s going to help coach Mike McCarthy immediately at that position, Thompson probably will have to do it in the free-agent market.

A daily look at the Packers' free agents

We all know his history there. The skeptics are justified. But free-agent talks really begin at the NFL scouting combine, and rumblings there were that Thompson probably will break form and try to sign a significant player or two.

If so, this year’s tight end class lacks star power but isn’t bad. If the Bears cut Martellus Bennett in the next week, as they reportedly plan to, there are at least six of note available. I talked with a scout for an NFL team who has studied this year’s potential tight ends class, and here’s his take along with some background on each:

Ladarius Green (6-6, 240), Chargers: The fourth-round pick from 2012 will turn 26 in May, which puts him on the young side for the free-agent market. He ran an outstanding 4.53-second 40 at the combine in ’12 but hasn’t put up much for numbers with the Chargers – his 37 catches last season were a career high. But that’s in part because he has been playing behind Antonio Gates.

Gates plans to return for another season, and while the Chargers reportedly want to re-sign Green, it’s far from a given they will. The scout rated him as the tight end he’d most like to have from this free-agent class.

“Green is the guy that is so intriguing because he’s becoming a good ballplayer,” the scout said. “He’s starting to learn how to block. Being around Gates has helped him a lot, so his game is really starting to rise.”

Martellus Bennett (6-6, 273), Bears: He’s one of the NFL’s most complete tight ends but also has been hard to handle. He didn’t make the trip for Chicago’s Thanksgiving night win over the Packers last season after carping about his undersized role in the game plan at practice that week. He skipped all voluntary work last offseason because he wanted a pay raise. And in 2014 he was fined and suspended during training camp for slamming a teammate to the ground during a fight in practice.

But Bennett has surpassed the 50-catch mark in each of the past four years, including a career-high 90 with the Bears in ’14. He turns 29 next week, so he’s probably starting the downside of his career, but he’s a big, talented player, and his age and history could hold down his price tag. He’s scheduled to make $5.085 million this year, which will be wiped out if the Bears cut him.

“Knowing some people back there in Chicago, he’s a real high-maintenance guy,” the scout said. “I think they’re going to move on from that. You’re looking at the scale, does that counterbalance what he’s doing for them on the field? And I think their thoughts at this point are no.

“It’s a mixture of attitude and ‘I can’t play this week because of this,’ and then he wants the ball more. A lot of little things. … I’m not big on high-maintenance guys, but the guy has had some production over the years.”

Vernon Davis (6-3, 250), Broncos: One of the best size-speed athletes ever to play tight end. After his early November trade from San Francisco, he was a non-factor for the Super Bowl champs because he had trouble quickly assimilating the offense and suffered from a couple horrendous drops.

He turned 32 in January, so he’s old for his position, but he’s such an exceptional athlete that he still runs well, if not the ridiculous 4.38-second 40 he ran at the combine 10 years ago. Last season he made $4.75 million in salary and roster bonus.

“The thing that hurt him (in Denver) is he didn’t get to go through the offseason program,” the scout said. “If he was to go through an offseason he’d be fine. He’s still one of the top guys as far as speed and that type of thing.”

Dwayne Allen (6-3, 265), Colts: Has been a better player than teammate Coby Fleener even though he was selected a round later (the third) in the same 2012 draft. Ran a poor 4.89-second 40 at the scouting combine in ’12, but then caught 45 passes as a rookie. Had a season-ending hip injury in Week 1 in ’13 and had only 45 receptions combined in ’13 and ’14. Just turned 26 last month.

“I was against Allen when he came out because I thought he was pompous and arrogant,” the scout said. “He’s done more (than Fleener) as far as being an all-around tight end. He can block and things like that. He’ll probably command more money than (Fleener) because he’s a better all-around talent.”

Packers' free agents: Who stays, who goes?

Jared Cook (6-5, 254), Rams: Turns 29 in April and was cut by the Rams as part of a salary-cap purge two weeks ago that wiped his $7 million base salary off their books. Had only 39 receptions (12.3-yard average) with no touchdowns last season for a team that had more than its share of quarterback issues. Pro Football Focus had him for the most drops (10) of all tight ends in the league.

Cook was cut, so he’s available for signing now and carries the advantage of not counting against his new team in the compensatory draft pick formula. The former third-round pick ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds at the combine in ’09, but for all that speed he never caught more than 52 passes or five touchdowns in a season. The question is whether the Rams saw him as a fast-declining player..

“I haven’t seen a whole lot of production,” the scout said.

Coby Fleener (6-6, 251), Colts: Had prototype size and speed (4.51-second 40) coming out of college but hasn’t played to that level. Had 52, 51 and 54 catches each of the last three seasons, and without Andrew Luck at quarterback for much of ’15 averaged only 9.1 yards per catch.

“He’s a 50-catch-a-year guy, but I don’t think he’s lived up to the hype of when he came out,” the scout said. “There’s nothing explosive. I don’t know what his stats are but I’d be shocked if he were averaging (10) yards per reception. You just don’t see the wow factor. I don’t think he presents that kind of a matchup problem for people. He’s kind of a small, frail guy. Small frame, small-boned kind of guy.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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