Through hard work, Rodgers changed Franklin's tune.
"They're getting a really good athlete," Franklin told Packer Report this week. "Richard could almost play any position. He could probably throw the ball further than any player on our team, so he can do a little bit of everything. He has the best hands of anybody I've ever coached. He's just got remarkable hand-eye coordination and ball skills."
The spread system operated by first-year coach Sonny Dykes and Franklin sent Rodgers from tight end to receiver. He responded with 39 receptions for 608 yards, good for an impressive 15.6 yards per reception. With that, it was off to the NFL.
"If Richard had stayed another year in college, Richard would have had an opportunity to be a first-round draft pick and be a great player," Franklin said. "Obviously going to Green Bay, if he ends up developing the way that we thought that he would, he'll have a good career."
Franklin's praise stands in stark contrast to what he told Rodgers about a year ago. Under then-coach Jeff Tedford in 2012, Rodgers had played as a true tight end at about 265 pounds. While recovering from shoulder and foot injuries, Franklin said Rodgers' weight soared to "280 pounds or more." That wasn't going to work in Cal's "Bear Raid" offense, which features four-receiver sets and no tight end. If Rodgers was going to play as one of the slot receivers, he'd have to shape up.
"He was fat and he was out of shape," Franklin said.
It was a message with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
"I have a tendency to be blunt with people. I've always felt like that saves a little bit of time," Franklin said. "I basically meant it. I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to him but he was overweight and he needed to lose weight. He wasn't fast enough in order to be able to play."
Rodgers took Franklin's message to heart. He got his weight in order and had a breakout season, with almost twice as many receptions in 2013 (39) as 2011 and 2012 combined (20). His production didn't surprise Franklin, who had seen Rodgers' pass-catching knack amid the extra weight. Rodgers put an exclamation point on the season with five catches for 125 yards in the season finale against powerhouse Stanford.
"I knew watching film that he had good ball skills," Franklin said. "We had him go in the box and block — we just didn't have him with his hand on the ground. The last couple of games, we had him with his hand on the ground more, especially against Stanford. That was probably, in my opinion, the best game that he played.
One area where Rodgers must improve is his blocking. Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said that he had "to do some searching" to find video of Rodgers blocking as a traditional tight end. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas said he sees "no blocking ability in him whatsoever." Franklin said Rodgers shared time at the position because Cal had 215-pound alternatives who "scratched your eyes out to block somebody."
Rodgers' blocking ability — or inability — isn't nearly as relevant as it was 10 or 20 years ago. In many ways, today's tight end is nothing more than an overgrown receiver. With his hands and crisp route-running skills, Rodgers' best days might be ahead.
"I think that he can be a really good football player," Franklin said. "The tight end position has changed dramatically in the NFL. It's not 1969 and Mike Ditka lining up and hitting someone in the mouth every play. That's just not what that position is today. In my opinion, it's easier to run routes in the NFL than it is in college. Richard could end up being a better NFL player than he was a college player because it's easier to run routes. The NFL has a 5-yard rule. I watch NFL film all the time and it's a whole lot easier to run a route in the NFL because nobody touches you. In college football, they grab and hold and pull you 5 yards down the field, 10 yards down the field, 20 yards down the field. In the NFL, nobody touches anybody once they get past 5 yards. I think Richard will benefit from that. I wouldn't be surprised to see him be very successful — especially with Aaron Rodgers being the quarterback."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.