Quarless has ‘more in the tank’ as Packers TE hits free agency

In the Packers' wild-card round playoff loss to the 49ers, tight end Andrew Quarless had just one catch for eight yards, but on the season he had a career highs of 32 receptions for 312 yards and two touchdowns.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — It didn’t happen the way that Andrew Quarless wanted, but the Green Bay Packers tight end got the opportunity to show what he can do as the No. 1 option on the depth chart. The timing was perfect for him too, as Quarless will hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.

After the season-ending injury to Jermichael Finley, Quarless had his moments. The back-to-back performances in Weeks 14 and 15 with six catches for 66 yards and one touchdown were statistically when he shined. But with Quarless having more than 400 combined snaps as a run or pass blocker, there were plenty of chances for the Packers to get a large sample size of his overall game.

"I definitely think I proved a couple things this year," Quarless said.

Having a playmaking tight end is very important to the Packers’ offense. As position coach Jerry Fontenot admitted after the season, with an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and a dominant running back like Eddie Lacy, having a big-body receiving threat across the middle is necessary to take full advantage of what those two can do.

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"I think whenever Andrew had opportunities to get his hands on the ball, he did that pretty well for the most part," Fontenot said. "He did have a couple of drops that we felt like he should have been able to handle. Overall, he did make some grabs that were pretty impressive. Andrew I think answered what we asked him to do."

With Finley’s career in jeopardy and his contract with Green Bay expired, it’s all but certain that the Packers will be looking elsewhere for their starting tight end in 2014. While it seems that Quarless is best suited for a supporting role, he hopes to be cast for that part in Green Bay.

"The way I look at it, I’m a big guy about loyalty," Quarless said. "This is the team that drafted me. No other team took a risk on me. It took them to the fifth round and they drafted me. I’m always thankful for that and will never forget that. We’ll just see how it works out."

It’s difficult — if not entirely impossible — to judge Quarless’ four-year body of work since being drafted by the Packers in the fifth round in 2010. The gruesome knee injury he suffered in Week 13 of the 2011 season cost him the rest of that year and the entire 2012 season. That injury also prevented him from being able to prepare for the 2013 season like the majority of his teammates did.

"This will be my first year I can train like I wanted to, so I’m excited," Quarless said.

Fontenot described it as "challenges" that Quarless faces, even after recovering from the torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. However, Fontenot believes Quarless’ body "will respond better from this point forward."

So, at age 25 and with major knee surgery forever attached to him, just how much better can Quarless get if the Packers — or any NFL team — decide to make him their featured tight end next season?

"I think he’s got more in the tank," Fontenot said. "And we talked about that throughout the season. I think he’s made strides in being a better receiver and understanding where he needs to be on the field at any given point. As with anything, you always work on consistency. Having to switch between quarterbacks throughout the year probably had an impact as well, because he’s always in conversation — receivers are always in conversation with quarterbacks, kind of fine-tuning details as far as where quarterbacks want them at any particular point.

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"Overall, I thought he made strides in the right direction, but I think we have more in the tank."

Finley was never great as a blocker, but he made up for that with his ability to catch passes, command attention from defenses and break tackles. Quarless isn’t that and likely never will be. It’s why he needs to be better than tight ends like Finley in other areas of the game. While he was often good in his limited opportunities in pass protection, Quarless mostly struggled as a blocker in the running game.

"I think that at times his run-blocking improved," Fontenot said, adding that fundamentals can be a problem when coming back from the injury that Quarless was returning from.

With no other offensive positions being of great concern this offseason for the Packers, the one big question for general manager Ted Thompson and his staff on offense is what to do at tight end. Finley is a wild card, but is Quarless the answer or does Green Bay need to invest a high draft pick to find its next starting tight end?

Most likely, the answer lies in the draft, but that certainly wouldn’t eliminate a potential return from Quarless to resume his previous role as the backup.

"We have a great tight end in J-Mike and also in me, so we’ll see how it plays out," Quarless said. "All I can do is put it in God’s hands."

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