“I can consider myself the top echelon of tight ends,” Quarless said before departing on the Tailgate Tour this spring. “That’s really where I see myself and that’s really where I’m trying to take it. A couple other guys like Gronk and a couple guys who are up there, I put myself in that bracket. That’s definitely where I’m training to be.”
It was a comment worthy of a roll of the eyes.
Quarless is coming off a season in which he caught 29 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. In four seasons, not including 2012, which he missed with a major knee injury, he’s grabbed 85 passes for 909 yards and six touchdowns.
Last season alone, Gronkowski solidified his status as the best tight end in football by catching 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, however, wasn’t rolling his eyes. He appreciated his veteran’s confidence.
“I do. Absolutely. Absolutely,” Fontenot said after Tuesday’s minicamp practice. “Guys need to believe in themselves — not with arrogance, but they’ve got to be able to believe in themselves and see the true picture of what they’re capable of, and he certainly does.”
As Quarless embarks on his sixth season, he’s more than likely defined who he is as a player. He does everything at a decent level but isn’t a dominant blocker or a dynamic playmaker. In other words, he’s not Gronkowski.
“I definitely feel like an underdog,” Quarless said on Tuesday.
Fontenot, however, doesn’t buy into the notion that Quarless has reached his peak. Looking back on a 16-year playing career, Fontenot said it’s possible for Quarless — still just 26 — to be an ascending player.
“I’ll tell you, if I’m basing it off of my own experience, then, yes, you can absolutely get markedly better throughout your career,” Fontenot said. “As you get smarter, you do (have a chance to improve). With more knowledge, I think you make yourself a more formidable opponent and the more experience you gain as you go through your years, if that equates to getting smarter or just more experience, I think it definitely can lend itself to guys getting better. Physically, he is as talented as he’s ever been. It’s not like he’s going to tail off any time soon. Presumably, if he’s able to stay healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t be as strong and as fast as he has been throughout his early 20s.”
Before there’s another roll of the eyes, quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed to Quarless as one of the young players “who’ve jumped out” during the offseason workouts.
Quarless is glad his quarterback has noticed. He said he’s ramped up his workouts this offseason with an eye on simulating the 16-play, no-huddle drives the Rodgers-led offense is capable of putting together.
“It starts in the offseason. It starts in practice,” Quarless said. “One of the big things we always say is, ‘Finish to the cone.’ They set up cones 30 yards down the field. It doesn’t matter if they tag you up, you finish. It’s the little things that count and that shows come game time. That’s the little things that I tell my young guys is make sure you finish every play in practice like it’s your last and that’ll carry over to the field.”
Maybe being Gronkowski 2.0 is a pie-in-the-sky goal but perhaps being a “top echelon” tight end isn’t quite as far-fetched. Fontenot said Quarless didn’t have to make a “significant change” to get there. Simply being another year removed from that horrific knee injury sustained in late 2011 should make a difference. Quarless has played in all 16 games in each of the past two seasons, and Fontenot thought Quarless stepped up his game down the stretch of last season.
That’s led to an increased confidence level that is evident beyond his words.
“In terms of where he is right now and where he started last offseason or where he was at this point last offseason, I think that Drew is playing with a lot more confidence,” Fontenot said. “He understands our offensive scheme very well and I think that, more than anything, the confidence in his leg and his body and knowing what he can expect from all those moving parts has given him a lot more confidence. As I told him a year-and-a-half ago, two years ago, you had to play a full season in order to get your legs back underneath you. So, he did and I think that we’re seeing that now from him. He was very solid. I think through the midpoint of the season last year, he didn’t do anything that stood out on film in a negative way. From that standpoint, I think he was really solid and I think he’s just picking up now from where he left off last season.”
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