Three of the NFL's top young guns have a talented tight end to lean on: Dallas' Tony Romo has Jason Witten (96 catches), Cleveland's Derek Anderson has Kellen Winslow (82 catches) and San Diego's Philip Rivers has Antonio Gates (75 catches).
In Green Bay, first-year starter Aaron Rodgers has Donald Lee. Lee's a fine player who finished 11th among NFL tight ends last season with 48 catches, but he's not exactly a game-changer, and there's nothing behind him on the roster.
For a team with championship aspirations and a difficult schedule, the Packers must find a way to offset the loss of Brett Favre. Thus, drafting an athletic tight end in the first or second round makes a lot of sense.
Few positions draw such contrasting opinions among scouts as tight end, but it's a fairly good bet USC's Fred Davis, Purdue's Dustin Keller, Texas A&M's Martellus Bennett will be selected somewhere from the end of the first round through the second round.
Because of the big-play impact of players like Gates and the Chiefs' Tony Gonzelez, the tight end position has evolved from blockers who maybe can catch to receivers who maybe can block.
"Used to be, back when I started in ‘78, ‘79, was that you couldn't block, you couldn't play," ESPN' Mel Kiper Jr. said during a recent conference call. "The pass-catching tight ends are front and center today. The blocking is almost secondary."
Elite tight ends are some of the NFL's ultimate game-changers, especially in this day when Cover-2 defenses are so prevalent, and especially in the NFC North, where all three of the Packers' rivals play it. In the Cover-2 — made popular by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back when Tony Dungy was defensive coordinator — two safeties line up deep. A tight end with the ability to get deep will occupy those safeties, making throws to the outside receivers much easier to complete.
The fastest of the bunch is Purdue's Dustin Keller, who showed wide receiver-like speed at the combine by running the 40 in 4.54 seconds. He can't block a lick, but caught 124 passes with a 13.3-yard average and 11 touchdowns in the last two seasons. At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, he easily conjures comparisons to the Colts' prolific Dallas Clark.
"He's a great pass-catching tight end," Kiper said. "He's not going to help you as a blocker."
USC's Fred Davis, the Mackey Award winner as college football's top tight end last year, slipped after a disappointing combine. His 4.68-second speed in the 40 is decent, and at 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, he's a handful to tackle. Once the likes of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith left for the NFL, Davis became the Trojans' go-to receiver. He caught 62 passes for 881 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior. Those are USC records for a tight end, and he was the first tight end to lead USC in receptions since 1980.
"Davis has rocked up with a great-looking physique," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said in a separate conference call. "He's an athletic mismatch for a linebacker and can get down the field and challenge safeties. He's extremely athletic with the ball in his hands after the catch."
One prospect who draws obvious comparisons to the Chargers' Gates is Bennett, who considered entering the NBA draft after playing basketball at Texas A&M as a freshman. At 6-foot-6, he's the tallest of the elite tight end prospects, and he knows how to use that height. He caught 49 passes for 587 yards and four touchdowns last season, and caught a pass in a school-record 29 straight games. Plus, according to the Aggies, he recorded 67 knockdown blocks. Some, however, question his work ethic, his 40 time (4.68) is only OK and some of his college coaches say he's not the most likable guy.
Some other prospects who the Packers might consider if they haven't selected a tight end in the first two rounds:
Notre Dame's John Carlson: Is the best combination of receiver and blocker, but isn't special at either. Has great size at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, and an OK 40 time of 4.72 seconds. Caught 100 passes in his career. The academic all-America scored a whopping 40 on the Wonderlic intelligence test.
Tennessee's Brad Cottam: A huge prospect at 6-foot-7 1/2 and 269 pounds who ran the 40 in 4.69 seconds. He looks great on paper, but caught only 21 passes in four seasons. Caught a 31-yard touchdown pass against Wisconsin in January's Outback Bowl.
Texas' Jeremichael Finley: Would have been a better prospect had he come back for his junior season. He has the size (6-foot-4 1/2 and 240) and speed (4.62 in the 40) but is raw mentally and technique-wise. Caught 76 passes for 947 yards and five TDs in two seasons.
Missouri's Martin Rucker: His 200 career catches are tops among this year's draft class. Played in a spread-option offense and rarely played tight end in its traditional sense. Has the size (6-foot-4 1/2, 250 pounds), OK speed (4.71 in the 40) and a great vertical. With a knack for getting open, he would be intriguing prospect for a creative coach, like the Packers' Mike McCarthy.
Steve Lawrence is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com