Packers’ Quarless seeking to become impact player

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Andrew Quarless wants to be the best tight end in the NFL. It’s a lofty goal, but the Green Bay Packers were reminded Tuesday just how good their confident 24-year-old tight end can be when healthy.

Nearly 17 months after suffering a gruesome knee injury, Quarless hauled in a screen pass inside the Don Hutson Center during the team’s offseason training activities and ran down the field with a burst that he hasn’t been able to display in a long time. Making a cut on his surgically repaired right knee appeared effortless, putting a smile on Quarless’ face and getting the attention of coach Mike McCarthy.

“Clearly the best shape he’s been in since he’s been a Green Bay Packer,” McCarthy said of Quarless following practice. “I would like to think he’s fully past his injury. Sometimes it takes a full year and a half to do that. He looks really good. He spends a lot of extra time here. He has done an excellent job in the area of strength and conditioning and nutrition.

“I really look for him to make an impact and definitely give us that player that we all felt that he was coming on there at the end of his rookie year.”

As a rookie in 2010, Quarless received more playing time than any tight end on the Packers’ roster. After starter Jermichael Finley was placed on injured reserve, Quarless used his increased opportunities to finish the season with 21 catches for 238 yards and one touchdown. Just as important as his statistical production was that Quarless performed well as a blocker, something that Finley often does not.

“(Quarless) is the one guy that has shown the ability to play on the line and off the line, and we’re challenging the other tight ends to do so,” McCarthy said. “He can clearly play all four positions for us in the tight end playbook, so he looks good.”

All of the momentum that Quarless had early in his career was abruptly halted late in the 2011 season when he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee.

Though Quarless was placed on Green Bay’s active roster in November 2012, he never played a snap that season and was placed on injured reserve a few weeks later.

“I felt like if I needed to go I definitely could have gone out there and played, but it wasn’t ready,” Quarless said. “Coming back from a severe injury, it just wasn’t ready. But I still competed and I still played hard every practice and at least tried.

“It was one of those things that it would get swelled up. Certain little things that showed me it wasn’t ready. But me, I’m a competitive guy, so I was ready to get back out there, which why I think I was back on active.”

The Packers took the cautious approach with Quarless at the time. That decision may have helped lead to Quarless’ impressive catch-and-run during a team drills portion of the second week of OTAs.

Typically, a fourth-year player like Quarless wouldn’t get overly excited by a play that was made in May while wearing shorts and no pads, but it gave plenty of reasons for optimism and was a sign that he had turned a corner physically.

“That was probably one of the hardest things to do in my life, to have to sit out and be away from the game,” Quarless said. “It just gives you a greater appreciation for everything. It put a chip on my shoulder to have sit out that long, so I’m thankful.

“Just being away from the game so long, I’m just happy to get back out there. I feel pretty good.”

On Quarless’ notable play in Tuesday’s practice, he took a few passing hits from teammates. There wasn’t any tackling involved, but a spirited workout that placed an emphasis on the defense to force fumbles gave Quarless a chance to see that his knee could hold up.

“I fell on it a few times,” Quarless said. “That was kind of a big test for me, too. I haven’t really fallen on it since the injury so falling and getting back up – that’s one of the biggest things.”

Quarless noted that he hadn’t run a passing route until the beginning of OTAs last week. Being able to cut aggressively on those plays was just as crucial to his recovery, especially with overcoming the mental side of the injury.

“They kind of threw me into it, which is not a bad thing because I kind of want to push it myself,” Quarless said. “I didn’t want to comeback last year and be limited. It’s just one of those things you prove to yourself and also the guys around you, the coaches you just want them to know you can compete.”

Now that Quarless has proven he can compete, at least in a practice setting, it’s onto that goal of overtaking Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and the rest of the NFL’s top tight ends.

“I do want to be the best tight end to play the game, but first I’ve got to take little steps and just get back out there,” Quarless said. “I don’t want to rush it too much, but I definitely have high expectations for myself.”

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