The Packers used their tight ends often as extra backs to block for Ahman Green while the offensive line learned the new zone blocking scheme. The tight ends also were held back to protect Brett Favre on passing downs.
However, when the Packers needed the tight ends most – in the red zone – they often fell short of pitching in with big plays. Improving the production this season at that position has been a point of emphasis for McCarthy, and the Packers are hoping to get a lot more out of veterans Bubba Franks and Donald Lee. Whether they will or not remains to be seen.
"We need to create more opportunities to winning inside because that's where the tight end position factors," said McCarthy. "So, they will be given those opportunities, and we just need to increase the productivity of it."
McCarthy made a move this off-season by inserting Lee ahead of Franks, an eighth-year pro, with the first team offense during minicamp and Organized Team Activities practices. That's not to say that Franks will not be the starter on opening day, but McCarthy made it clear that he needs more from that position and is open to change.
Franks is coming off two of his worst seasons as a pro – a total of 50 catches and one touchdown in 2005 and '06. To his credit, Franks lost some weight this off-season in an effort to improve his speed and appears ready to regain some of the Pro Bowl form and confidence in himself that he had from 2001 to '03.
"I think Bubba is in much better physical condition than he was last year," McCarthy said. "He looks leaner, I think he's moving a lot better. Once again, another veteran football player who has a lot of experience. We asked him to do some things a little different last year, and he has a better understanding of that now. We are adjusting some things as we move forward with the tight end position, and I think we have excellent competition. But Bubba Franks is a veteran football player, and we expect him to contribute to our football team."
Lee, 26, is two years younger than Franks and has a golden opportunity ahead of him in training camp to win a starting spot. He only had 10 catches last season and no touchdowns, one year after making a career-high of 33 catches and scoring two touchdowns. But he also played less behind Franks and the departed David Martin (Miami) in '06 than in '05 when Martin and Franks missed a number of games with injuries. With opportunity may come better production from Lee.
"I think he's done a very good job, and I think he really showed up in the vertical passing game which we obviously need," McCarthy said of Lee's off-season workouts. "It generates big plays particularly from the inside position. He's worked very had - that whole group has - as far as catching the football. They've been down here doing ball drills probably two or three times a week, and I think you're seeing the benefits of that show up in practice."
Clark Harris, selected in the seventh round of the draft by the Packers, has a chance to make the team, but he will have to demonstrate an ability to block in training camp. Zac Alcorn, who spent a lot of time on the team's practice squad last year before he was promoted to the active roster on Nov. 18, is more likely to fill the No. 3 tight end spot. Alcorn is a solid special teams player and has impressed the coaches with his blocking, but he will be pushed by second-year pro Tory Humphrey, who played mainly on special teams in seven games last year and was slowed by a hamstring injury.
It would not be a surprise to see McCarthy keep four tight ends on the 53-man roster, but that is not likely because of the progress the offensive line made last year.
Here is an early bird prediction of the three tight ends that will make the opening day roster:
1. Donald Lee
2. Bubba Franks
3. Zac Alcorn
Note: Clark Harris will be placed on practice squad.