With 12 days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the tight ends.
Starter: Richard Rodgers. Backups: Jared Cook, Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry, Casey Pierce.
Coming: Cook, Pierce. Going: Andrew Quarless.
Starter: Rodgers did a lot of things well last season. He caught 58 passes and scored eight touchdowns. Among tight ends in franchise history, his reception total ranks No. 2 and his touchdown count ties for No. 3. The eight scores tied for the team lead and ranked fifth among league tight ends. He caught an impressive 68.2 percent of targeted passes with only two drops.
It’s what he didn’t do well that necessitated the signing of Cook. Rodgers averaged 8.8 yards per reception. Among tight ends with at least 30 catches, only one tight end had a lower average. Take the 61-yard, game-winning Hail Mary at Detroit out of the equation, and Rodgers’ average tumbles to merely 7.9 yards per catch. And he’s not a threat after the catch, either. The Packers could live with those facts if Rodgers was an above-average blocker. But he’s not.
Cook has shortcomings, too. According to STATS, he dropped 15 passes during his three seasons with the Rams and fumbled twice last season. And he falls short as a blocker, too. But Cook is a big-play weapon. Over the past six seasons, his average yards per catch has ranged from 11.9 to 15.5. While Rodgers averaged 3.78 yards after the catch per catch in 2015 and 2.75 as a rookie in 2014, Cook averaged more than 5.2 YAC in each of his seasons with St. Louis.
“I think his skill-set is for any offense, really, whether it’s the Green Bay Packers’ offense or some other team’s offense,” new tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said of Cook, who missed most of the offseason practices after minor ankle surgery. “You’ve got a guy who can run and has length. I think when you have those things, it can present problems to the defenses. Obviously, that’s what we’re hoping is going to happen — not just Jared but with the other guys. There’s other guys in that room that have done good things, Richard being one of them. He’s done some good things in here. You go back to the Detroit game. That’s not easy what he did, to go up and high-point that football when the game’s on the line. That’s everything. He’s proven he can make plays when the game’s on the line.”
Bottom of depth chart: Perillo enters camp as the favorite for the No. 3 job. After spending the first five weeks of last season on the practice squad, Perillo caught 11 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. During the failed fourth-quarter comeback vs. Detroit, he caught five passes for 58 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown in the final moments that put the Packers within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime. He’s not tall and he’s not fast but he knows how to get open, a fact that’s been evident dating to training camp in 2014, when he was an undrafted rookie from Maine.
Backman, a sixth-round pick last year, had a poor training camp and stuck around based on potential. He played 11 snaps on offense. He didn’t play much more on special teams — and not at all after being burned on a fake punt in the NFC North title game vs. Minnesota. Other than Cook, he’s the most athletic tight end on the roster. He’s going to have to show that he can turn that ability into production during the preseason.
Henry, an undrafted free agent last year, labored through most of camp with a broken hand. When he was released, the Broncos grabbed him. Henry played one snap on offense during the first five games, was released and wound up spending the rest of the year on Green Bay’s practice squad. Pierce, who also went undrafted last year, spent his entire rookie season on Detroit’s practice squad. The Lions cut him on May 3, and the Packers wasted no time in signing him, still intrigued by a player who caught 60 passes as a senior at Kent State.
“We have a deep tight end crew,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “There’s going to be some tough competition there.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
If Cook can make some plays, this offense could be unstoppable. He is a physical freak. At the Scouting Combine in 2009, Cook measured in at almost 6-foot-5. His 35 3/4-inch arms make him the envy of most offensive tackles. And he can run like the wind, with a 4.50 40-yard dash that would have tied for 11th among the wide receivers at this year’s Combine.
“Any time you can control the middle of the field, that helps,” Angelichio said. “It puts defenses in a bind on how they’re going to play coverages and dictate matchups and, obviously, in the red area. I think those guys, certainly, you see the trend throughout the league. Those guys are difference-makers if you have one of them. I think that’s where the league is going.”
For all the production Rodgers posted last season, defensive coordinators didn’t have to create game plans with No. 82 in mind. With Cook occupying safeties, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb should have ample room to operate. Even with a bunch of bad quarterbacks throwing the ball, Cook had 17 gains of 25-plus yards over the last three seasons.
“He’s a big, physical guy,” Cobb said. “He’s cut from a different cloth with his build and his speed. He was a lot bigger than what I first imagined when I first met him. He’s definitely going to be another threat for us and another guy that teams are going to have to think about.”
Angelichio. Who is the most important offseason addition for the Packers? Maybe it’s Cook’s coach, who became available after Mike Pettine and his staff were fired by the Browns at the end of the season.
Angelichio spent the last two seasons with Cleveland. Last season, Gary Barnidge caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns to emerge as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. And before last season? Barnidge had a combined 44 receptions for 603 yards and three touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2008. If Angelichio can coax that sort of out-of-nowhere production from a player, what might he be able to do with Rodgers and Cook, who have successful resumes, or Backman, who has the tools to be a playmaker, as well?
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.