This is the fourth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: TIGHT ENDS
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Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starter: Jermichael Finley (6th season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Andrew Quarless, *D.J. Williams, *Matthew Mulligan, *Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick, Jake Stoneburner
This could be the last year of Jermichael Finley playing for the Green Bay Packers. With one year left on a contract that will pay him $8 million in 2013, Finley’s performance this season will go a long way in determining his worth to the Packers — and to the rest of the NFL — when he hits free agency in 2014.
Keeping the focus on this season, though, Finley will again play an important role in Green Bay’s offense. Last season, Finley had more catches than any tight end in franchise history. With Greg Jennings now in Minnesota, it’s likely that Finley will become an even bigger part of the passing game. When Finley lines up outside as a receiver this season it certainly won’t be the first time he’s done it, but there are several factors that could lead to that being a lot more common. He’ll undoubtedly be one of the top four options for Aaron Rodgers, but if Randall Cobb, James Jones or Jordy Nelson miss any games, Finley could become much more of a wide receiver than a tight end. It’s already well-documented that Finley struggles as a blocker anyway, so having him run routes even more often than he has in the past might be a better use of his skills.
The aspect of Finley’s game that will most directly affect the quality of his season will be drops. In 2011, only one NFL player (Cleveland Browns receiver Greg Little) dropped a higher percentage of catchable passes than Finley, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s database. That year, Finley dropped 17.91 percent of passes thrown his way. That unfortunate trend continued early in the 2012 season when Finley had three drops in the first two games. However, over the final 10 games (playoffs included), he dropped only two passes. Finley didn’t struggle with drops early in his career. Plus, what he does during practice drills suggests he’s about as sure-handed as a player could be, so the Packers are hoping that was just a bad phase of Finley’s career that’s now over.
Behind Finley, Green Bay has very solid depth at tight end. Andrew Quarless is back after missing the entire 2012 season recovering from a serious knee injury. Based on the players currently on the Packers’ roster, Quarless’ skill set makes him the most likely to be able to step into Finley’s shoes if necessary (either this season or beyond). D.J. Williams has yet to blossom into a dependable player, but the John Mackey Award that he earned two years ago in college would seem to indicate that he has plenty of talent. Matthew Mulligan was signed this offseason to be the team’s run-blocking tight end after Tom Crabtree departed in free agency. Ryan Taylor could figure into the equation as well, but he’s been more of a special teams player in his first two NFL seasons. Brandon Bostick and undrafted rookie Jake Stoneburner will have to play very well throughout training camp to have a shot at making the active roster. Stoneburner could be a good candidate to groom on the practice squad.
Best position battle:
Which tight end will get the second-most snaps? If healthy, Finley should be on the field more than any other tight end by a significant margin. Last season, Finley had twice as many snaps as the rest of the players in his position group. But the tight end who finished second in playing time in 2012 was Crabtree, who was used as a blocker for 72.5 percent of the snaps in which he was on the field. That role has been handed to Mulligan, who has only caught 14 passes in his four-year career. Mulligan is arguably a far better blocker than Crabtree, so that could be an upgrade for the Packers. That leads to the idea that Mulligan, despite being the newcomer, will get more action than Quarless, Williams and Taylor.
There are two unpredictable wild cards in play, though. The first is Quarless, who appeared fully recovered during minicamp and could be in line for a breakout season. In order to have a chance at that potential success, Quarless needs to display well-rounded performances in preseason. If Finley is the route-runner and Mulligan is the blocker, can Quarless be the player who best combines both areas? That would certainly have Quarless earning a lot of snaps.
The other wild card is Williams. It’s been a disappointing first two seasons for the undersized tight end and it won’t get any easier for him this year. With Quarless now healthy and Mulligan added to the group, Williams will have to play really well every chance he gets. There were several times last season in which Williams was a healthy inactive on game day, which he vowed to not let happen again. The skills that he showed during training camp in 2012 were that of a good NFL tight end; it just hasn’t translated to in-game success yet.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Vikings; 4. Bears
This is a fairly close race at all four spots. Each team in the division has one quality receiving tight end, but Finley is coming off the best season among them, giving the Packers the slight edge here. In Detroit, Brandon Pettigrew had two straight 700-plus receiving yard seasons in 2010 and 2011, but his targets, catches, yards and touchdowns were all down last year, while his fumbles (four) were way up. Minnesota has 23-year-old Kyle Rudolph, who could find himself as the division’s clear-cut best tight end by midseason if Christian Ponder can get him the ball with some consistency. Chicago added Martellus Bennett, a talented player who had a hot start last season in his only year with the New York Giants before his production dropped off in the closing weeks.
“Of course, losing a big player like (Jennings), there’s many opportunities for multiple players on the team; for Quarless, me and the receivers we’ve got. So we’re going to have to step it up and make some plays.”