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TEs: Finley must catch on

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – On more than one occasion last season, then-offensive coordinator Joe Philbin would joke with reporters about a secret five tight end alignment he and coach Mike McCarthy had drawn up for the Green Bay Packers’ offense.

Then-tight ends coach Ben McAdoo went Philbin, an old tight ends coach himself, one better.

“I’d like to get six out there. But I think that’d be against the rules,” he said. “I surely wouldn’t turn down that opportunity.”

Six won’t happen, and five might not ever happen again, either – at least not to start the 2012 season.With third-year tight end Andrew Quarless likely ticketed for the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from a major, season-ending knee injury suffered on Dec. 4 against the New York Giants, the Packers probably won’t carry five tight ends until after the midpoint of the season.

That said, in a league where tight ends – especially adept pass-catchers – are en vogue, the Packers might’ve been ahead of the curve when they kept five (Jermichael Finley, Quarless, Tom Crabtree and rookies D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor) coming out of training camp last year. They even had all five active for six of the first 12 games of the season before Quarless’ injury.

Why does McCarthy value tight ends so much? Not only is their “body type” perfect for special teams units, but the coach loves the options having so many on the roster gives him in terms of the offensive scheme.

“Just the way they’re utilized, it’s really part of the reason why went to five tight ends,” McCarthy said. “I think they even have more flexibility than your traditional fullback body type.”

At tight end, it all starts with Finley, who returned by signing a two-year, $15 million deal before hitting the free-agent market in March. After his second 55-catch season – one shy of Paul Coffman’s team record for receptions by a tight end in a season – Finley’s charge is simple: Catch the football more consistently. STATS had him for 11 dropped passes last season, ProFootballFocus.com had him for 12 (plus two more in the playoff loss to the New York Giants). While he still managed 767 receiving yards and eight TD catches, he dropped a league-worst 17.9 percent of the “catchable” balls thrown his way, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

“Jermichael is a talent and a forced to be reckoned with when he’s on the field. So getting him as many opportunities as possible is important,” said new tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, who shifted from coaching running backs when McAdoo took over as quarterbacks coach this offseason. “He’s going to help us in a number of ways. That’s not just solely exclusive to the pass game. He can help us across the board.

“I think the main emphasis for Jermichael is getting him back (focused). He didn’t catch the ball the way he wanted to. My job this offseason is to help him with that and get him comfortable and refocusing on the ball and we’re doing drills in that area. (But) that’s not the main focus. Our main focus is getting in-tune with the offense and what’s being asked of every player within the system.”

No one is higher on Taylor than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who wanted to see more of Taylor on offense even before Quarless’ injury. A seventh-round pick from North Carolina, Taylor played in 15 games (after being inactive for the opener) and was a core special-teamer, then caught a 1-yard touchdown from Rodgers – his only reception of the year – on his first career offensive snap against Oakland on Dec. 11.

“He’s a kid that has a lot of talent and he plays fast,” Fontenot said. “That’s one thing about Ryan. I’m always on the field telling him to remember to breathe, because he’s almost holding his breath as he’s running down the field, he’s giving it everything he’s got. You love to see that in a kid, that enthusiasm. Again, he’s a kid that has certain things he needs to work on and we’ll focus on that. That’s what we’re doing, hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to contribute as much as possible.”

The other rookie tight end last year, Williams, had won the Mackey Award as a senior at Arkansas and came in as the more NFL-ready pass-catcher. But in 13 games last season, he caught just two passes. After an offseason in the team’s program, he seems to have developed a better all-around game, which should give him more chances to play.

“He’s kind of in the same boat as Ryan. He’s a different style of player,” Fontenot said. “D.J.’s a little more fluid running routes, a little more in tune with certain intricacies of the pass game, but he’s a smooth player. (I) like D.J. a lot. He’s kind of multi-functional. Again, (we’ll be) giving him as much exposure as we can to the many different things a tight end has to do within the system to find out what suits him the best.”

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Crabtree, an old soul kind of player even though he’s only going into his third NFL season. Rodgers loves Crabtree because he’s always where he’s supposed to be and makes very few mental errors; Fontenot believes that despite low production (six receptions, 38 yards, one TD), Crabtree is a better pass-catcher than he’s given credit for.

“To go back to the Super Bowl, he made the huge catch down in the red zone on third and 6, whatever it was. He made an outstanding catch to the outside, converted the third down,” Fontenot said. “That’s how I see Crabby – whenever he gets his opportunity, he generally produces. We want to give him enough where we’re not stressing him out by having him do a whole wide range of things, but he has to be in tune enough to fill in at any position he’s asked to play in.”

QUICK READ: TIGHT ENDS

Depth chart
 
 No.
 Name
 Ht.
 Wt.
 Age
 Exp.
 College
 88
 Jermichael Finley
 6-5
 247
 25
 5
 Texas
 81
 Andrew Quarless
 6-4
 252
 23
 3
 Penn State
 83
 Tom Crabtree
 6-4
 245
 26
 3
 Miami (Ohio)
 84
 D.J. Williams
 6-2
 245
 22
 R
 Arkansas
 82
 Ryan Taylor
 6-3
 254
 24
 2
 North Carolina
 48
 Brandon Bostick
 6-3
 245
 23
 R
 Newberry
 45
 Eric Lair
 6-2
 238
 22
 R
 Minnesota
 
Burning Question
What’s next for Finley?

With 21 catches for 301 yards in the first four games of the 2010 season, Finley was on pace for the greatest season by a tight end in Packers history – 84 receptions for 1,204 yards. Finley, who caught 55 regular-season passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games in 2009, then caught six passes for a franchise playoff record 159 yards in the team’s NFC Wild Card loss to Arizona, would have destroyed Paul Coffman’s 1979 team record for receptions by a tight end (56). Instead, his season-ending knee injury put an end to that. Worse yet, it was still on his mind last year, when he dropped catchable balls and saw his 55 catches as a disappointing season. “Every time somebody got around my legs, I was like, ‘Watch out.’ I was thinking about that next injury,” Finley admitted. “I can say it was because of the injury last year, for sure.” With a little bit of security from a two-year deal, Finley now says he’ll be “freestyling” more this season. If that equates to him realizing his vast potential, the Packers are all for it.

On the rise
Taylor.

Taylor was one of the more impressive players in training camp last summer, proving capable of playing special teams at the NFL level from the first day of practice. He also had a moment of glory at tight end in the team’s 24-21 preseason victory at Indianapolis on Aug. 26, when he caught an 11-yard fourth-down touchdown from No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell, then caught the ensuing two-point conversion to tie the game, setting up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired. But he didn’t see action on offense last season until Quarless’ season-ending knee injury. Now, his quarterback believes he’s ready for more. When Quarless went down, Aaron Rodgers lobbied for more playing time for Taylor, saying, “Hopefully that Ryan Taylor will get some action. I think he’s been impressing on the look team, on the first team. He’s an excellent special teams player. I think it’s about time he got to play.” That week, Taylor caught a 1-yard TD pass from Rodgers as his first NFL regular-season reception. Expect him to have a greater role this year.

The most interesting man (not in the world, but at the position)
Crabtree.

There’s no denying Crabtree’s popularity on Twitter, where he exudes a rare everyman ethos that’s refreshing for a professional athlete. On Monday, he apparently signed off from his @TCrabtree83 account for the rest of the season, telling his 45,000-plus followers, “Goodbye Twitter. See you in 2013. Unless the Mayans were right.” While he’ll be missed on the social media site, look for him to be more involved on offense. Already a special teams cornerstone, he has the quarterback’s full confidence, and his ability to block in-line and out of the backfield is valuable. So, too, is his ability to catch the ball – an underrated quality for him.

Key competition
No. 2 tight end.

Finley is unquestionably the go-to guy among the tight ends, and the matchup problem he presents – and his improvement as a blocker – means he should be on the field almost every snap. Indeed, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Finley played 883 snaps last season, while the rest of the tight ends played a combined 682: Crabtree played 342; Quarless played 204; Williams played 104 and Taylor played 32. When the Packers go to two-tight end alignments or give Finley a breather, who’s the next man up?

Noteworthy

Finley’s three-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears in Week 3 marked only the second time in franchise history that a tight end had three TD receptions in a game. Keith Jackson, who accomplished the feat on Sept. 1, 1996 at Tampa Bay did it first, and the two share something more than the team record and the same jersey number (88): Both possessed the ability to give opposing defensive coordinators fits with the matchup problems they created. Now, it’s up to Finley to put together the kind of consistent career Jackson had with the Philadelphia Eagles and Packers: In his nine NFL seasons, Jackson made the Pro Bowl six times (1988, ’89, ‘90, ’92. ‘93, ‘96) and finished his career with 441 receptions for 5,283 yards and 49 touchdowns. In his final season, Jackson caught 40 passes for 505 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns as the Packers went 13-3 and won Super Bowl XXXI.

Quoteworthy

“Jermichael is an energetic young man. Very expressive in the way he goes about his business. He’s extremely talented. It’s rewarding to watch him grow in all aspects. He has had an excellent off-season. He’s in great shape. He had a little setback missing two days of practice. But there are different personalities throughout the football team. Him and I are different in that way, obviously.”.” – Packers coach Mike McCarthy, on his sometimes brash tight end.

Next: Offensive line.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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