Dougherty: Packers could make free-agent splash at tight end
Of the four teams playing in the NFL’s conference championship games Sunday, three have tight ends who play major roles in their offense.
Rob Gronkowski led the New England Patriots in receptions (69) in the regular season, has a 15.7-yard average per catch — which is astronomical for a tight end — and is one of the better blockers at his position in the league.
Zach Ertz led the Philadelphia Eagles in catches (74) and yards (824), caught eight touchdown passes and is going to his first Pro Bowl.
Kyle Rudolph tied for the Minnesota Vikings’ lead in touchdown catches (eight) and was third in receptions (57) and receiving yards (532).
For that matter, even Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis led his team in touchdown catches (five) playing in a Blake Bortles-led offense that had the most rushing attempts and yards in the league.
There’s a good reason coach Mike McCarthy values the position. As NFL rules continue to evolve to protect receivers from big hits, tight ends have become more and more valuable in the passing game.
“You can’t have enough big-body types running through the middle of the field,” McCarthy said last summer.
If the Packers have any position that’s ripe for new general manager Brian Gutekunst to fill in free agency, it’s tight end, despite his predecessor’s big swings and misses at that position last year.
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Ted Thompson tried to give McCarthy two good receiving tight ends last year when he signed Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks on back-to-back days in March. But those plans flopped.
Bennett blocked well enough but couldn’t run at all anymore at age 30. He’ll be remembered mostly for excessive drops before he bowed out after seven games because of a shoulder injury.
Kendricks at age 29 wasn’t a threat in the passing game (18 catches) and played a lot only because Bennett shut it down.
But that doesn’t mean it was a mistake to try in free agency, it just meant the Packers signed the wrong guys. Jared Cook showed just what a fast tight end can do for McCarthy’s offense in 2016, and he was a free agent, too.
Tight end is one of the most difficult positions for rookies to make much of a difference because of the dual responsibility of learning the sophisticated NFL passing game plus playing a significant role as a blocker. That’s a lot for a rookie to take on. In the last 10 years, only four rookie tight ends have caught at least 50 passes, and only 12 have caught at least 40.
So for immediate help, Gutekunst probably will have to look to free agency, and there’s a decent chance a big, interesting name will be available: Jimmy Graham.
Graham at one time was a premier player (four seasons of 80 catches or more) and is coming off a season in Seattle that was good enough (57 catches, 10 touchdowns) to get him to his fifth Pro Bowl.
There’s a chance he’ll be available because his contract ran out after this season and the Seahawks have invested so much money on defense the last few years that they very well might decide they don’t have the cap room to bring Graham back. They have an estimated $13.7 million in 2018 cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, and more than their share of other needs to put most of that into the 31-year-old Graham.
At a little over 6-foot-6, Graham’s not the athlete he used to be and has had a recurring knee problem in recent years, though it wasn’t much of a problem in 2017 (he didn’t miss a game). He ran the 40 in 4.56 seconds coming out of college in 2010 but isn’t that fast eight years later. So teams will have to study him hard before deciding just how big an investment he’s worth for the next couple of years.
He’s also a terrible blocker, so any team signing him has to go in with eyes open about what he offers. He’s essentially a huge receiver.
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“He’s a really, really good red-zone player because he’s tall so he can jump over guys,” said an assistant coach for a team in Seattle’s NFC West Division. “He’s physical enough and tall enough that you can throw him a fade route, he’s hard for a DB to manage on his own. For that part, yes, he’s very valuable.”
The assistant coach also said Graham’s speed doesn’t appear to have diminished that much even though his stats took a big drop after his trade from New Orleans to Seattle in 2015. Graham averaged 32 fewer catches (57 to 89) in his three seasons with the Seahawks than in his final four with the Saints.
One reason for the decline was going from a prolific passing offense with one of the NFL’s best passers (Drew Brees) at quarterback to the run-oriented Seahawks with scrambler Russell Wilson pulling the trigger. Also, the Seahawks used him more as an in-line tight end than the Saints, which would seem to have defeated the purpose of acquiring him in the first place.
“He is a perfect (pass-catching tight end),” the assistant coach said. “Back-side cutoffs (i.e., blocks), he does that OK, not great but OK, and he can stretch the field (as a receiver). That’s the problem, you make a lot of decisions on big-play ability, and then you can’t run the ball because you’ve got all these guys that can’t block.”
Graham was the NFL’s highest-paid tight end the last four years at an average of $10 million. If Seattle doesn’t re-sign him before free agency starts, he’ll be the top-rated tight end on the market, with nobody a close second. While his age and knee issues will have to factor in, he figures to command at least $7 million to $8 million a year, and maybe more with the salary cap expected to rise another $10 million.
Some of the other tight ends who will be available if they don’t re-sign before the start of free agency are Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert, a talented former first-round pick and major injury risk who has missed more games (41) than he has played (39) in five NFL seasons; Philadelphia’s Trey Burton, an undersized (6-3, 235) backup who caught five touchdown passes this season; Carolina’s 30-year-old Ed Dickson, who ran 4.59 coming out of Oregon and Seattle backup Luke Willson, a sleeper who never has caught more than 22 passes in any of his five NFL seasons but ran 4.51 coming out of Rice in 2013.
There’s no denying the Packers have a big hole in their offense at the tight end position, and the chances of a rookie filling it immediately, even a talented one, aren’t good. If any position is crying out for Gutekunst to sign a free agent, and maybe even making a big splash with Graham, this is it.