Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find every report here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
At the moment, Jermichael Finley remains a free agent. Finley has been the Packers starting tight end since 2009, a year before Green Bay drafted Andrew Quarless in the fifth round. Assuming that Finley’s departure from the Packers becomes permanent (whether that’s because he signs with another team or he opts to retire from football), Green Bay is in desperate need of some steady play at the tight end position this season.
Quarless has the most experience among the Packers’ current crop of tight ends. The team also showed that it has plans for Quarless by re-signing him this offseason to a two-year, $3 million contract.
It took him more than a year to do so, but Quarless is completely recovered after suffering a serious knee injury in 2011. That took him out for the entire 2012 season, but Quarless showed very few ill effects in 2013 while playing in all 16 games.
Quarless is No. 25 on this list because he’s the presumed starter at an important position, a position that can be a game-changer in an offense that has Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Quarless will never have Finley’s receiving skills, but if he can provide stability at tight end and be a well-rounded player, he will have done his job.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013
As a receiver, Quarless’ career-highs all came last season when he posted 32 receptions for 312 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a far cry from Finley’s all-time franchise records for a tight end when he had 61 catches in 2012 and 767 receiving yards (plus eight touchdowns) in 2011. Starter or not, Quarless won’t put up those numbers.
Quarless needs to be productive in the passing game, but he needs to show that he can run-block and pass-block better than Finley ever did. Last season, Quarless was arguably the Packers’ worst run-blocking tight end. That cannot continue for Quarless to live up to reasonable expectations.
Quarless is still only 25 years old, and with the knee injury behind him now, there’s a chance he could still blossom into a better-than-average player. If that happens, it should be viewed as a bonus for Green Bay. In order for Quarless’ season to be viewed as a success, aside from staying healthy, he needs to show improvement as an all-around tight end that isn’t a liability in any area of the game.
Head coach Mike McCarthy wants every-down type of players. Quarless needs to prove he can be one of them.
If Quarless can’t get the job done as a starter this upcoming season, the Packers could be in trouble at tight end. The rest of the position group presents many questions marks.
Brandon Bostick has the potential to be a star. However, Bostick is just two years removed from being an undrafted player out of Division II’s Newberry College. Bostick could still require another year of seasoning before he becomes the breakout player that some believe he can be.
Richard Rodgers, Green Bay’s third-round pick out of California, didn’t even play as a traditional tight end last season. Expecting Rodgers to be an impact rookie seems like something he’d be unlikely to accomplish. Like Bostick, the high ceiling is there for Rodgers, but seeing more than quick glimpses of that this season may be asking too much of him.
Ryan Taylor has been around for three seasons now, but he’s never played in more than 175 offensive snaps in any of those years. Taylor is a special-teams type of player who can occasionally step into an offensive role.
Jake Stoneburner appeared in nine games last season as an undrafted rookie, but he didn’t make much of a mark. It’s possible that he is a "Year 2 jump" guy that McCarthy always looks for, but there should be at least two tight ends in front of Stoneburner on the depth chart before he gets that chance.
Colt Lyerla has the talent to be a star tight end in the NFL. He could also fail to make it out of training camp, with an off-the-field background that won’t lead to him being given much leeway. Unless Lyerla explodes onto the scene and becomes one of the most talked about players in Green Bay, probably the best case scenario for him as a rookie is to make the active roster and be brought along somewhat slowly.
Looking at that list, it’s obvious why Quarless has to be a steady presence with the tight ends. Sure, maybe by the end of the year he’s the third-best tight end on the roster (especially if Bostick or Rodgers play up to the level they’re capable of), but for at least the first half of the season, Quarless will be counted on to play well and contribute consistently.