Gra­ham, Lewis fac­ing dif­fi­cult TE tran­si­tion

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Ryan Wood

GREEN BAY - Since a neck in­jury pre­ma­turely ended Jer­michael Fin­ley’s career in 2013, the Green Bay Pack­ers have tried to re­build their tight end po­si­tion.

The Pack­ers turned to free agency each of the past three sea­sons. In 2016, for­mer gen­eral man­ager Ted Thomp­son took a low-risk gam­ble on Jared Cook, sign­ing him to a one-year deal. Af­ter con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions broke down the fol­low­ing off­sea­son, the Pack­ers dou­bled down at tight end with the ad­di­tions of Martel­lus Ben­nett and Lance Ken­dricks.

Then this spring new gen­eral man­ager Brian Gutekunst brought in Jimmy Gra­ham and Marcedes Lewis.

There is no ques­tion re­lent­lessly tar­get­ing tight ends has cre­ated depth. Three years ago, the Pack­ers’ top three tight ends (Richard Rodgers, Justin Per­illo and An­drew Quar­less) had com­bined for 116 catches, 1,236 yards and nine touch­downs over eight sea­sons. Their top three tight ends this spring

have com­bined for 1,153 catches, 13,637 yards and 120 touch­downs over 28 sea­sons.

“I look back over the years,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “and I don’t think we’ve had this much ex­pe­ri­ence at the tight end po­si­tion in my time here.”

So ex­pe­ri­enced are the Pack­ers’ top tight ends, none are here this week at manda­tory mini­camp. Gra­ham, Ken­dricks and Lewis were among 16 vet­er­ans with at least six years of ex­pe­ri­ence ex­cused this week. Their ab­sence al­lows a greater fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing younger tight ends on their ros­ter, per­haps cre­at­ing more depth.

Once the trio re­turns, the Pack­ers’ em­pha­sis will be on ac­cli­mat­ing the three vet­er­ans into their of­fense. They will have am­ple his­tory to lean on, es­pe­cially with what doesn’t work. In re­cent years, the Pack­ers have not yet had a tight end ex­pe­ri­ence a quick, smooth tran­si­tion to their sys­tem.

From the re­cent wave of free-agent sign­ings, Cook had the most suc­cess with 48 catches for 606 yards and three touch­downs in 13 games (count­ing play­offs). His side­line, tip-toe­ing catch to help win a play­off game at Dal­las was among the most mem­o­rable Pack­ers plays of the past decade.

But it wasn’t un­til late Novem­ber in the 2016 sea­son that Cook be­came a fac­tor. He was al­most in­vis­i­ble through the first three games, catch­ing six passes for 53 yards be­fore a foot in­jury cost him six weeks.

The Pack­ers got nowhere near the pro­duc­tion ex­pected from Ben­nett last sea­son. Only once did he reach 50 yards in a game, and in seven games be­fore be­ing re­leased Ben­nett never caught a touch­down pass.

Though much of his sea­son came with backup Brett Hund­ley, Ken­dricks also saw his pro­duc­tion sig­nif­i­cantly de­cline. Af­ter catch­ing 50 passes for 499 yards and a pair of touch­downs with the Los An­ge­les Rams in 2016, Ken­dricks caught just 18 passes for 203 yards and one touch­down last fall.

Which is why there’s no guar­an­tee a deeper tight end ros­ter will meet ex­pec­ta­tions this sea­son.

“The tight end po­si­tion in this of­fense is dif­fi­cult,” McCarthy said. “I think that goes un­der­stated, frankly. The tight end po­si­tion, out­side of the quar­ter­back and the cen­ter and guards, the vol­ume of re­spon­si­bil­ity is sig­nif­i­cant. Ob­vi­ously they have run-game re­spon­si­bil­ity. They’re mul­ti­ple po­si­tion play­ers, so they have for­ma­tion vari­a­tion re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“So with that, they have char­ac­ter­is­tic traits be­ing in the back­field, be­ing out of the back­field, be­ing ex­tended as a re­ceiver, and then ob­vi­ously the pass game, route run­ning and route-run­ning prin­ci­ple re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

With how their ros­ter is con­structed, the Pack­ers fig­ure to rely heav­ily on their tight ends in the 2018 sea­son. Though Da­vante Adams is a le­git­i­mate No. 1 re­ceiv­ing op­tion, the Pack­ers have less ex­pe­ri­ence (and per­haps less tal­ent) at re­ceiver than in re­cent sea­sons af­ter re­leas­ing Jordy Nel­son this spring. Ran­dall Cobb will be only 28 this sea­son, but the lone 1,000-yard sea­son in his career came in 2014.

Get­ting early pro­duc­tion from their tight end group will be key. The Pack­ers hope Gra­ham, es­pe­cially, can ac­cel­er­ate his learn­ing curve. He has al­ready drawn praise from McCarthy and his quar­ter­back.

It is hard to make any sort of eval­u­a­tions from prac­tices with­out pads, ex­cept per­haps a player’s ath­leti­cism. In that re­gard, Gra­ham was im­pres­sive in or­ga­nized team ac­tiv­i­ties. In one team drill, Gra­ham got be­hind in­side line­backer Jake Ryan, catch­ing a deep pass from quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers. In an­other, he leaped over safety Jer­maine Whitehead in the end zone, quickly spik­ing the foot­ball af­ter land­ing.

That Gra­ham has al­ready built an on­field con­nec­tion with Rodgers is a promis­ing sign.

“The guy is pretty damn tal­ented,” Rodgers said this spring. “He’s got some dif­fer­ent el­e­ments we haven’t had around here in a while with his abil­ity to read cov­er­ages very quickly. He catches ev­ery­thing with his hands. So we’re pretty ex­cited about him.”

Still, the real in­di­ca­tions won’t come un­til later. Once the pads are strapped on in train­ing camp next month, cov­er­age will tighten. There will be more phys­i­cal­ity at the line of scrim­mage, dis­rupt­ing rhythm and tim­ing en­ter­ing a route.

Jim Hostler, who co­or­di­nates the Pack­ers’ pass game, said traf­fic in the mid­dle of the field is an added el­e­ment perime­ter re­ceivers don’t face. While the need to be in the cor­rect spot at the pre­cise time with proper spac­ing be­tween other re­ceivers is sim­i­lar, in­te­rior re­ceivers must also nav­i­gate through more de­fend­ers.

“In­side re­ceivers have con­flic­tion in front of them,” Hostler said. “There’s al­ways an un­der­neath el­e­ment that’s rerout­ing them, and an over-the-top el­e­ment. Whereas out­side re­ceivers re­ally have a corner to de­feat most of the time.”

For Gra­ham, ad­just­ing to a new of­fense will be fa­mil­iar. He tran­si­tioned from the New Or­leans Saints’ passhappy of­fense to the Seat­tle Sea­hawks’ run-dom­i­nant sys­tem af­ter be­ing traded in 2015. Gra­ham’s num­bers dipped in his first sea­son, but his pro­duc­tion re­vived with Pro Bowl ap­pear­ances each of the past two years.

Avoid­ing a lengthy tran­si­tion will be key for a Pack­ers of­fense re­ly­ing on his pro­duc­tion. So far, McCarthy said Gra­ham’s early in­tro­duc­tion has been promis­ing.

“I think Jimmy’s done a great job com­ing in here and pick­ing it up,” McCarthy said. “He’s been a great fit.”

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Jimmy Gra­ham will be chang­ing sys­tems again, as he did three years ago when he went from New Or­leans to Seat­tle.

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