Until the 2015 season, tight end Gary Barnidge’s career-best receiving numbers were 13 receptions in 2013 and 2014, 242 yards in 2009 and two touchdowns in 2013.
Under the tutelage of position coach Brian Angelichio this past season, Barnidge was selected for the Pro Bowl and emerged as one of the NFL’s best tight ends. He caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns for the Browns. That’s 44 more receptions, 603 more yards and six more touchdowns that he had total since entering the NFL in 2008.
When Mike Pettine and his staff were fired at the end of the season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy pounced. He wasted no time in firing Jerry Fontenot and bringing in Angelichio, who on Wednesday was named the Packers’ tight ends coach.
“It’s a performance business. We all understand that,” McCarthy said on Thursday, talking generally about all of his coaching moves this offseason and not specifically at tight end. “There’s a big picture that ultimately I’m in charge of. The opportunity to continue to move forward as far as teaching the players, getting the players to respond and getting them to perform at the highest level. I think sometimes change is necessary to try to improve that drive.”
The Packers don’t have a tight end like Barnidge on the roster. At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds at the 2008 Scouting Combine, Barnidge ran his 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. He wound up being a fifth-round pick by the Panthers. At the 2014 Scouting Combine, Richard Rodgers measured 6-foot-4 and 257 pounds. He ran his 40 in 4.87 seconds. He wound up being a third-round pick by the Packers.
Then again, Rodgers was more productive than Barnidge at this stage of their careers. Last season, Rodgers caught 58 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. That’s 14 more receptions and five more touchdowns than Barnidge had in his first seven seasons put together.
So, if Barnidge can make a quantum leap at age 30, who’s to say Rodgers — who turned only 24 on Jan. 22 — has even approached his ceiling?
“Rich has some skill-set that you like,” Angelichio said. “I’m continuing to evaluate and go through that as we do the cut-ups. Obviously, he was a productive player last year. He caught 55 or 58 footballs last year, showed good hands. He’s only played two seasons in this league. He was thrown right into the fire and, to his credit, he’s done a good job with it.”
Angelichio deflected his role in Barnidge’s development, though Barnidge has spoken highly of Angelichio. With Barnidge’s size and speed, it’s clear the tools were there. But until Angelichio spent 2014 and 2015 working with him in Cleveland, that talent never jumped to the forefront.
“First of all, it starts with Gary,” Angelichio said. “I give Gary all the credit. His whole career, he’s been a hard worker, detailed guy, preparation, film study, true pro. I think this year he was given the opportunity to be the guy and he took advantage of it. To his credit, he went out and had a great year. I think it was just opportunity but his preparation — he’s been preparing like that since the day he got in the league.”
Angelichio is taking over a position group that could be incredibly young if veteran Andrew Quarless isn’t retained in free agency. Rodgers just turned 24. Kennard Backman, a sixth-round pick in 2015 who made no contribution, won’t turn 23 until next week. Justin Perillo, who showed some flashes as a second-year player, turned 25 last month. Mitchell Henry, an undrafted rookie who spent the year on the practice squad, turned 24 in December. The team almost certainly will add another player or two in the draft or college free agency.
“Unfortunately in this league, whether you’re young or not doesn’t matter,” Angelichio said. “You have to practice and play and perform. Nobody’s going to wait for you in this league. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you and say, ‘Well, you’re young.’ I don’t look at it any different. Hey, the job is whoever we’ve got, my job’s to get them out there and get them to play at the highest level we can to help this football team win. It is what it is and you just go.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.