McGinn: Bennett, Kendricks bring toughness

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Baltimore Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr (54) tackles New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) during a game Dec. 12, 2016.

GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers lost guard T.J. Lang and running back Eddie Lacy within the span of 48 hours last week, they lost more than just two starters.

Lang and Lacy were certifiable tough guys who played significant roles in the Packers’ important shift on offense from pure finesse to physical, or at least as physical as an offense can be with Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers at the reins.

It’s unclear if general manager Ted Thompson was thinking about the toughness factor when he signed tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks about 10 days ago. Thompson explains next to nothing.

Unwittingly or not, Thompson added toughness at a position in Green Bay that has had too little of it for too long.

A decade ago Bennett was measured at 6 feet 6 1/8 inches. Listed at 275 pounds last year in New England and 265 the year before in Chicago, it’s hard to say what he weighs. After watching the Super Bowl he looks much closer to 265, but whatever his weight Bennett not only has the size but the willingness to use that size as one of the NFL’s best blocking tight ends.

“More blocker than receiver,” Bill Polian, then president of the Indianapolis Colts, said in his appraisal of Bennett before the 2008 draft in which the Dallas Cowboys selected him late in the second round.

Kendricks (6-3) was listed at 250 by the Los Angeles Rams for the last few seasons. He was 243 at the combine and 241 at the Wisconsin pro day before being selected midway through the second round of the 2011 draft.

Before that draft, scout after scout paid tribute to Kendricks’ tenaciousness as a blocker in the Badgers’ pro-style offense.

“Blocking is the thing that stands out,” said A.J. Smith, then general manager of the San Diego Chargers. “He’s just a competitive, competitive guy.”

One special teams coordinator who evaluated dozens of tight ends that year gave high praise to Kendricks, calling him the only one that he liked. “Good toughness in the wedge,” the coach said. “Pretty tough, but not a true ‘Y’ in our league.”

NFL teams often refer to the conventional, in-line tight end as a "Y." Said Shemy Schembechler, then the Midwest scout for Washington: “He’s a tough little (expletive). Problem is, he’s not real big.”

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Sometimes collegiate scouting reports are rendered obsolete as a player’s career unfolds in the pros. However, in interviews with three personnel men last week and many others over the years regarding both players, it’s remarkable how little the narrative has changed on Bennett and Kendricks.

Bennett’s three-year, $21 million contract with Green Bay includes $6.3 million guaranteed. Kendricks’ two-year, $4 million deal has $1.2 million guaranteed.

They were added as free agents after the tight end that the Packers wanted, Jared Cook, balked at their offer to re-sign and several days later ended up taking a two-year, $10.6 million contract ($5 million guaranteed) from Oakland.

The Packers also have Richard Rodgers, who has one year ($1.965 million cap salary) remaining on his deal.

“Bennett is way better than Jared Cook,” one personnel director said. “And he’s smarter. And he’s not as selfish. He’s going to be loud, but you’ve got to live with that.

“I think (Kendricks) is a good get. He’s a flex tight end. He’s still got some juice.”

Scouts couched their assessments of the two players with the proviso that age could affect them as early as the coming season. Bennett, who just turned 30, has played nine seasons after a three-year career at Texas A&M. Kendricks, who turned 29 in January, played six seasons for the Rams after spending five years at Wisconsin.

Although Bennett played 86 of the Patriots’ 99 snaps in the Super Bowl and logged 77.6 percent playing time in 16 regular-season games, he was bothered by ankle, knee and shoulder woes much of the season.

He suffered a right ankle injury in Game 5 before reinjuring it in Game 11. In January, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Bennett had a cracked bone and bone chips in the ankle that might lead to surgery in the off-season.

“He’s given us a lot of production this year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said late in the season. “Blocking, catching the ball and running after the catch have really been impressive.”

Last week, one general manager was asked to compare Bennett to every other tight end in the league on the basis of whom would he rather have to win the Super Bowl next February.

In alphabetical order, he ranked 12 players over Bennett: Jack Doyle, Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Jimmy Graham, Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Hunter Henry, Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph and Delanie Walker.

When asked who among the 12 blocked better than Bennett the GM picked only Gronkowski and Rudolph, putting Doyle and Gresham in the comparable category.

Kendricks, according to the scout, would rank 38th to 45th overall among tight ends.

St. Louis Rams tight end Lance Kendricks (88) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) during a game Jan. 3, 2016.

“Him and Bennett, that match made sense to me,” the GM said. “Kendricks is tough. He’ll put his face in there … he just doesn’t have much lead in his pencil. He gets knocked around.

“But they have Marty Bennett to do the heavy lifting, and Rodgers can do a little bit of both. If Bennett’s locked in, that gives them some guys to work with.”

Several scouts made it clear that Cook’s clear advantage over Bennett was speed. He ran 4.51 at 251 pounds in 2009 to go with a 41-inch vertical jump (he’s 6-4½), a 10-3 broad jump and 35¾-inch arms. Bennett’s numbers in 2008 (4.74 at 259, 34 vertical, 9-10 broad jump, 35 arms) are reflected in how they play.

“Cook is faster straight-line, yes, but their body type is totally different,” one scout said. “When you walk up on Bennett, that is a man. Cook can’t block you or me. Bennett can. He can seal an edge.”

In the Super Bowl, Bennett played 28 of his 86 snaps in a three-point stance and seven more attached to the tackle box. He was detached from the formation as a split receiver on 51 plays.

As a run blocker, Bennett’s size, power, hand use and sustain made him appear to be more effective than any important tight end in Green Bay since Bubba Franks. He was penalized twice against Atlanta for holding, a black mark, but his effort generally was solid.

As a pass blocker, Bennett probably drew just one minus on about 15 chip-and-checkdowns and double-teams.

“He can match up at the point of attack,” one scout said. “Now, he can get a little bit lazy on the second level back side. But front side, having strength and being able to hold the point, he’s a big body and he has a little snap to him.”

If Cook can get 25 yards down the seam in x number of seconds, Bennett might only get 20 to 22 deep. Both players have extremely long arms. Cook has a degree of tightness that affects his catch radius whereas Bennett, who considered declaring for the NBA draft as a high-school senior in Houston, seems more flexible.

Remember how Jermichael Finley (6-4½, 240, 4.68) could turn up the field in the short flat, fend off a tackler and gobble up yards? Bennett isn’t that lithe or fast, but he has Finley’s ability to run through tacklers in the middle of the field.

Twenty-three of Bennett’s 62 receiving yards (five receptions) in the Super Bowl resulted when the Falcons couldn’t wrestle him down immediately.

It was interesting that Bennett was a decoy on the Patriots’ first six plays in the overtime that gained 60 yards.

From the Falcons' 15, Belichick set Bennett in the right slot. Matched in man coverage against linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, Bennett took an outside release and would have scored the winning touchdown but Campbell drew an interference penalty.

On the next play at the 2, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went right back to Bennett on a diagonal route from a three-point stance but Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley reacted beautifully to knock the ball away.

The Packers saw what Bennett can do first-hand in a September 2014 game at Soldier Field when he made Micah Hyde miss a tackle on a 23-yard reception, outmuscled Sam Shields for 26 down the seam and physically overwhelmed Hyde on a 27-yard fade.

Using my own statistics for seasons as Packers augmented by data from STATS and Sportradar for non-Green Bay seasons, Bennett has had slightly more reliable hands than Kendricks and the team’s four prominent tight ends since the turn of the century.

With 33 drops in 596 targeted throws, Bennett has a drop rate of 5.54 percent. He’s followed by Cook, 32 of 548 (5.84 percent); Rodgers, 11 of 177 (6.22 percent); Franks, 26 of 415 (6.27 percent); Kendricks, 22 of 280 (7.86 percent), and Finley, 29 of 349 (8.31 percent).

My B-plus grades given to Finley in 2009 and ’10 were the highest for a Packers tight end since the 1990s.

“He runs well enough to stretch the field, especially with his size,” Trent Baalke, then the 49ers’ director of player personnel, said of Bennett before the 2008 draft. “And he uses his body as well as any tight end I’ve seen in a long time in terms of getting open.

“He has the ability to be a complete tight end. He’s an extremely talented person that does need to mature. I think, with time, he’ll get it.”

Lodged behind Jason Witten in Dallas from 2008-'11, Bennett permitted frustration to affect his work ethic and performance. He played between 37.2 percent and 47 percent each year and scored merely four touchdowns.

He bolted for a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the New York Giants, caught 90 passes in 91.2 percent playing time and went to the Bears the next March as an unrestricted free agent for $15.12 million ($9.22 million guaranteed) over four years.

“He’s what we thought we had,” a member of the Cowboys’ personnel staff said late during Bennett’s second season in Chicago. “Just a physical freak. He can be an extra tackle when he wants to. But he is a little different.”

The Patriots acquired Bennett (and his $5.189 million cap salary) and a sixth-round draft choice from the Bears last March for a fourth-round pick.

Just as the Cowboys, Giants and Bears had done previously, the Patriots used the player and moved. In fact, they basically made the same trade on March 9, acquiring tight end Dwayne Allen and a sixth from the Colts to team with Gronkowski in exchange for a fourth.

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Bennett, who scored 28 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, represents a distinct departure in personality from the type of player Thompson has collected in Green Bay. He has been described as eccentric, loquacious, goofy, self-centered, outspoken, a loose cannon and flamboyant, among other things, which could place him in jarring contrast amid one of the NFL’s most buttoned-up locker rooms.

“It explains a lot why this kind of talent is just on a nomadic existence,” one GM said. “Short-term, you can handle him, but there’s something to him that teams don’t want him back. Just kind of drains the locker room a little bit. He’s a sip, not a drink.”

In an interview at the Super Bowl with the Dallas Morning News, Bennett praised the Patriots for letting him just be himself.

“Early in my career I feel a lot of people tried to make me be something I wasn’t and that’s why I struggled,” Bennett said. “Not only on the field but a little bit off the field, because here I am trying to change who I am to do something I love when the whole time all I’ve got to do is be the same person I’ve always been.”

Kendricks, a wide receiver both at Milwaukee King and initially at UW, was sailing along halfway through the four-year, $18.5 million ($10 million guaranteed) contract that he signed with the Rams a few hours into the 2015 unrestricted signing period.

He was coming off a season of career bests in receptions (50), starts (16) and playing time (82.6 percent).

The Rams, facing salary-cap constraints, released Kendricks and plan to start Tyler Higbee, their fourth-round draft choice in 2016.

“He’s pretty average,” one scout said of Kendricks. “He can do a lot of things. He can play in the backfield, you can detach him, play him in-line. I thought he dropped a lot of balls. He’ll be a good role guy.”

Six years ago, Kendricks ran 4.70 at the combine and then 4.59 at pro day in Madison, which scouts say historically has been a fast surface. He tested well athletically (38½ vertical jump, 10-2 broad jump) but had short arms (32). His scores were 18 and 21 in two attempts on the Wonderlic.

Scouts were mixed on the comparison between Kendricks and Rodgers, and who ultimately would earn more playing time.

One month before the start of the Packers’ offseason program, that’s the way the new picture looks at tight end.

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