Dougherty: Packers need to prioritize drafting dynamic tight end

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham (80) can't make the catch against Minnesota Vikings' Jayron Kearse (27) in the first half during their football game Sunday, November 25, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. 
Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

The Green Bay Packers still haven’t replaced Jermichael Finley, and they’re paying a higher price than ever.

While recent rule changes keep increasing the value of tight ends in the NFL, the Packers keep flailing in their attempts to find a successor to the talented Finley, whose career ended because of a neck injury six games into the 2013 season.

Their starters since him have been Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Jimmy Graham. Of that group, Cook was the lone keeper, but the Packers let him walk in free agency after one year in Green Bay.

You can only imagine the regret Mike McCarthy feels as his offense flounders in 2018. He has been a proponent of the tight end position since he became Packers coach in 2006, and that has only grown as NFL rules have added protections for defenseless receivers in recent years.

McCarthy was only slightly exaggerating two years ago at the NFL owners meetings when he said tight end was on its way to becoming a primary position in the league.

“The middle of the field is open,” McCarthy said. “That’s a lot tougher area to defend with bigger athletic men at the tight end position.”

Now, no one’s saying tight end is the main reason the floundering Packers offense ranks No. 17 in scoring. The issues, of course, run far deeper.

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But the swings and misses at that position over the last five years haven’t helped in a league where a few teams (Philadelphia, Kansas City and New England, for starters) have built their passing game around high draft picks at tight end, and many others have prioritized acquiring a tight end for a key complementary role.

The Packers’ offense has been missing that player, and it’s time to make a real run at a solution by prioritizing tight end in the draft. If pass rusher is the Packers' obvious No. 1 need, at this point I’d argue tight end is a close No. 2. Not tackle or safety or guard. Tight end.

It means no more 30-and-over signings of former stars, but instead using a high draft pick, in the first two or three rounds, on a real talent. Take a shot on a sleeper in free agency, sure. But draft a gifted prospect who brings young legs to the position. Hitting on that pick could change the Packers’ offense.

Looking back on Finley, it’s telling that his best season was 2011, when he set career highs for yards (767) and touchdowns (eight). That was the Packers’ best offensive season ever, and their average of 35 points per game still ranks No. 3 in NFL history.

Finley was just one of several quality skill players in that offense, so it’s not like it was all him. But the mismatches he created, either in athleticism (against linebackers) or size (against defensive backs), created headaches for defensive coordinators. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but his No. 3 finish on that team in targets (92) and receptions (55) reflects his key role.

Knowing that, it might surprise you that in their last six drafts, the Packers selected only two tight ends: Rodgers in the third round in 2014 and Kennard Backman in the sixth round in 2015.

Rodgers never panned out because he was as pedestrian an athlete as they come. Backman played in only seven games in his career.

In more recent seasons the Packers tried free agency, but to no lasting effect.

They got it right with Cook – his return from a bad ankle injury coincided with their “run-the-table” turnaround to the 2016 NFC Championship game. But then that offseason they abruptly abandoned contract talks rather than waiting him out when he wouldn’t sign at their desired price.

While Cook has been Oakland’s best receiver the last two years (at an average of $5.3 million a year), the Packers tried and failed to coax at least one more good season out of two aging stars. Bennett had hit the wall when he joined the Packers at age 30 last year, and this season Graham (32 last month) has finally lost the athleticism that made him one of the top tight ends in the game.

Yes, it’s time for the Packers to spend some valuable draft capital at tight end. Because while there are no guarantees, today’s NFL will reward you in a big way if you invest in the right guy. Several teams have found that out.

Former second-round pick Zach Ertz, for instance, was the leading receiver (74 catches) on the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last year. Former third-rounder Travis Kelce is the leading receiver (67 catches) on Kansas City’s second-ranked scoring offense this season. And former first-round bust Eric Ebron has become a touchdown machine (11 through 11 games) for Indianapolis’ fourth-ranked scoring offense since departing Detroit in the offseason.

There’s also former second-round pick Rob Gronkowski, who’s been the best receiver on the NFL’s best team (New England) for several years. The Patriots, by the by, rank No. 7 in scoring this season.

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And Pittsburgh’s No. 6-ranked scoring offense gets a lot of mileage out of its underrated tight end duo, former second-round pick Vance McDonald and former fifth-rounder Jesse James, who have 62 catches and five touchdowns combined.

In fact, in a sign of the growing value of the position in today’s NFL, seven of the top 10 scoring teams this season have tight ends playing important if sometimes underappreciated roles.

Besides the Chiefs, Colts, Patriots and Steelers, there’s the No. 5-ranked Chicago Bears’ Trey Burton (38 catches and five touchdowns), No. 9 Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard (16.6-yard average on 34 catches, five touchdowns) and No. 10 Carolina’s Greg Olsen (26 catches and four touchdowns in eight games).   

This year Graham has given the Packers a glimpse of what a tight end can do for an offense, like last week at Minnesota on his arms-extended 25-yard catch down the middle seam late in the fourth quarter. He just doesn’t have the speed and athleticism anymore to make defenses worry about it.

The next draft will be a big one for general manager Brian Gutekunst to build on his promising class from 2018. He’ll have some ammo, too, with two first-round draft picks (his own and New Orleans’).

Noah Fant, Iowa's all-time leader in touchdowns by a tight end, tweeted Friday that he will declare for the NFL draft as a junior and skip the Hawkeyes' bowl game. Irv Smith Jr. of Alabama and Albert Okwuegbunam of Missouri also are projected to be drafted in the first three rounds.

Gutekunst also has a long list of other needs. But with only so many high picks to work with, he could do a lot worse than investing one in a tight end.

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