With the addition of Jared Cook, the Green Bay Packers now have a formidable one-two tight end punch with Cook and Richard Rodgers.
That probably takes tight end off of the first-round table for next month’s draft. However, that doesn’t mean tight end won’t be a consideration. Rather, the Packers’ draft focus might change.
Instead of looking for a Cook- or Jermichael Finley-style tight end with the ability to stretch the field, Packers general manager Ted Thompson might turn his attention to finding a blocker.
While much of the focus on Rodgers last season was his disappointing 8.8 yards per reception, the bigger problem was his lack of growth as a blocker. His troubles in that phase of the game probably played a significant role in position coach Jerry Fontenot losing his job. Rodgers’ lack of productivity as a blocker, however, should have come as no surprise. Rodgers wasn’t used as a blocker at Cal. In fact, after the 2014 draft, then-Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said he’d take Rodgers out of the game when he needed a blocker.
Cook’s not a bad blocker, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked him in the top 15 in the run game the past two seasons. However, Nate Latsch, who covered the Rams for Scout.com when they were in St. Louis, called Cook a “glorified” receiver and not the most willing of blockers. In 2015, the Rams’ offense revolved around the exploits of dynamic rookie running back Todd Gurley and Cook managed only 39 receptions (after averaging 51.5 in 2013 and 2014). The difference in the rushing attack with Cook in the game and out of the game was negligible, with the Rams averaging 0.05 yards more per carry in 2014 but 0.03 yards less per carry in 2015.
Unfortunately, in an awful class of tight ends, there are only two quality run blockers in the group.
While Arkansas’ Hunter Henry is considered the top receiver-blocker combination in the draft, Ohio State’s Nick Vannett is considered the best blocker-receiver. Vannett caught 55 passes for 585 yards and six touchdowns during his four seasons. After scoring five times as a junior, he closed his career with 19 receptions for 162 yards and no scores as a senior. However, he played a key role in running back Ezekiel Elliott’s monster season.
“Nick Vannett’s more of an end-of-the-line tight end,” said Phil Savage, the former NFL general manager who serves as director of the Senior Bowl. “He’s got some degree of being a pass receiver. If you have that pass-receiving tight end, he can fit in as that second tight end primarily as a blocker kind of guy.”
Vannett (6-6, 257) should be off the board in the first three or four rounds. With Cook in Green Bay on just a one-year deal, the Packers might feel inclined to cover themselves should either Cook not pan out or he play so well that he prices himself out of town in free agency next offseason.
“When he sinks his hips and runs his feet, he is quick to gain advantage, especially when executing his hand punch,” longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas said. “When blocking in space, he utilizes his long arms well to tie up the linebackers. He is athletic enough to make contact on open field blocks and does a nice job of facing up to the second level defenders so they can’t make the play, showing good vision looking up his opponents down field.”
Texas-San Antonio’s David Morgan is considered the best blocker in the class. Morgan, a part-time starter as a junior, recorded 45 receptions for 566 yards (12.6 average) and a program single-season record five touchdowns as a senior to become the fledgling program’s first-ever All-American. According to Thomas, Morgan (6-4, 262) led the nation’s tight ends with 10 touchdown-producing blocks. Morgan’s 29 reps on the 225-pound bench press blew away the rest of the tight ends at the Scouting Combine, but he is considered a late-round prospect because of a 5.02 clocking in the 40.
“He is much more decisive shooting his hands when working in-line, as added reps seems to have given him confidence in his hand punch,” Thomas said. “He has been very efficient getting into position and walling off, as he has a much stronger leg drive, which has allowed him to get a consistent anchor as a senior. He has also shown good pop and explosion as a second-level blocker, making him an asset serving as a lead blocker on end-around plays. He has a better kick-step getting into position in pass protection and shows very quick foot slide sustaining the rush lanes. He is quick enough to pull and trap, along with showing good shoulder power when leading through the holes.”
A final option would be well-traveled Beau Sandland, who went from Pierce College, a junior college in Los Angeles, to the University of Miami to, finally, Montana State. After redshirting in 2014, Sandland (6-4, 253) put up big numbers in 2015 — 37 receptions for 632 yards (17.1 average) and nine touchdowns. His 23 reps on the bench ranked second at the Combine, and his 4.74 in the 40 and 35-inch vertical leap confirm his athleticism.
“Sandland is more effective as a seal-and-sustain blocker,” Thomas said. “He needs to follow up quicker with strength and leverage, but has active feet and works hard to sustain. He does show a solid base, good knee bend and desire to face up, but tends to be more finesse than power-oriented in his in-line blocking technique. His body control is evident by the way he fires out to get on linebackers in the second level and works hard to stay in the opponent’s face. He’s not going to pancake defenders constantly, but does know how to get into the opponent’s way.”
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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.