Starter: Andrew Quarless. His legal issues notwithstanding, Quarless remains the team’s best tight end. While it was ridiculous to mention himself and Rob Gronkowski in the same sentence, he is the best combination of blocker and receiver at the position group. He caught 29 passes for 323 yards (11.1 average) and three touchdowns last season and should go over 100 catches and 1,000 yards and possibly reach 10 touchdowns for his career. (He’s got 85 for 909 and six scores in 55 games over five seasons.)
Top backup: Richard Rodgers. A third-round pick last season, Rodgers caught 20 passes for 225 yards and two scores as a rookie. He came on strong down the stretch with five catches for 40 yards in Week 17 vs. Detroit and four catches for 35 yards in the NFC Championship Game. Among rookies, he finished fourth in receptions, third in yards and tied for first in touchdowns.
Contenders: Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry and Harold Spears. Perillo, an undrafted free agent out of Maine, spent the first nine games of last season on the practice squad before being elevated to the roster. He played in two games and a total of 11 snaps, nine of which came on running plays. He missed most of the offseason with an unknown injury. Backman, a sixth-round pick out of UAB, caught 96 passes for 979 yards and seven touchdowns while starting 37 games over four seasons. Backman, who was coached by former NFL tight end Richard Owens, was billed as an all-around tight end but struggled catching the ball in the offseason. Henry was among several undrafted rookies given team-high $5,000 signing bonuses. He started 22 games in four seasons at Western Kentucky and finished with 78 receptions for 1,094 yards and 12 touchdowns. Spears went undrafted out of New Hampshire and was signed by the Saints. A week after his release, he was signed by the Packers during the minicamp, so he missed most of the offseason practices. He started 38 games in three seasons and recorded 111 catches for 1,639 yards and 12 touchdowns. That included a career-high 56 grabs for 838 yards as a senior.
Why is Quarless No. 1?: Quarless played about 160 snaps more per game than did Rodgers – about 10 more per game. He’s not a star at anything but he does everything at a decent level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Quarless caught 67.4 percent of targeted passes last season – about in the middle of the pack among tight ends. He averaged 5.3 yards after the catch per catch and had a drop rate of 6.45 percent – in the top one-third at the position. He was a good blocker last season, too. More on that below.
He had a strong offseason, though his recent arrest isn’t going to win him any favors. The feeling is Quarless has room to improve now that he’s another year past the knee injury that sidelined him for the end of 2011 and all of 2012.
“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,” tight ends coach Jerry 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.”
Why is Rodgers No. 2?: Blocking. If Rodgers can become a reliable blocker – even if it’s in the get-in-the-way variety – he’ll likely leap-frog Quarless this season. That’s a big if, however, because the difference between Quarless and Rodgers was so big last season. According to league data, the Packers averaged 0.26 yards more per rush with Quarless in the game than when on the sideline. On the other hand, the Packers averaged 0.71 yards less per carry with Rodgers in the game than when on the sideline. It was worse in the postseason, with the Packers averaging 2.58 yards less per carry with Rodgers in the game. If he can’t block better than that, he can’t possibly become the full-time tight end.
“Improvement in the areas that we talked about at the end of the season, and that was we want to improve our foot speed in our run blocking to gain some leverage, which he’s been working diligently at this offseason,” Fontenot said. “I think his route-running, he’s pretty keen as far as understanding coverages, understanding what his body gives him. He’s very efficient with his movements. In that area, I haven’t really changed anything or tried to. Just try to continue to give him opportunities to enhance the skills that he has that really make him a good player, and that is his route-running ability and his hands. He’s a smart guy, he learns very quickly. The more exposure that I can give him, the better he’s going to be.”
Does Quarless’ arrest matter? Unless Rodgers shows he can block and be a 50 snaps-per-game kind of player and one of the other young guys jump to the forefront, then, no, it probably doesn’t matter. With the offseason release of Brandon Bostick, this is an incredibly young group. Maybe Backman or Perillo is ready to play serious playing time in 2015 but that’s more wishing and hoping than anything at this point.
“I think Andrew’s had a great camp,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He really made some jumps last year. Not enough targets for him, but I think if he keeps playing the way that he’s playing right now – he’s playing very fast, he’s really been detailing his routes and he’s been one of the top guys that’s showed out in the offseason program.”
What is Rodgers’ upside?: That’s a good question. At 6-foot-4, he’s got good but not great size. At the Scouting Combine, he ran his 40 in 4.87 seconds and had just a 31.5-inch vertical, so he’s a below-average athlete. With those physical limitations, can he become anything more than a possession receiver? Not that there’s anything wrong with being just a possession receiver. When the Packers had little going offensively in the NFC Championship Game, it was Rodgers that became a go-to target for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers probably wouldn’t complain if Rodgers became a 50-catch, 500-yard player for the next several seasons. It’s probably unlikely, however, that he’s going to be a stretch-the-field, make-people-miss weapon.
Who’s the favorite for the No. 3 spot?: To answer a question with a question, who knows? Will Backman’s issues catching the ball be resolved once he’s simply playing rather than thinking? Can Perillo take a step forward after impressing in training camp last summer? He seemed like a guy who had a knack for getting open and then getting every inch out of the play. Henry seemed to get better as the offseason progressed and Spears showed promise in his limited exposure.
“I think both KB and Mitch have done some really good things, and I’ve always been a fan of Perillo,” Aaron Rodgers said. “We’ve got to get him back and healthy, and it will be some really good competition.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.