GREEN BAY – It wasn’t until the 2015 season ended that things finally began to settle down for Kennard Backman.
The rookie tight end’s life was thrown into fast-forward once his college career ended at UAB. Months blurred together. One hurdle quickly was followed by another.
New coaches, a new playbook and new system welcomed Backman to Green Bay after being the Packers’ eighth and final selection in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound tight end made the 53-man roster but played only 55 total snaps in the seven games he was active. The Packers like his potential, though Backman remains an enigma of sorts entering his second NFL training camp.
“I think Kennard is one of those guys you look for to make that jump,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy at March’s NFL owners meeting. “Real raw his first year. Willing. Good kid. I look for him to make an impact on special teams. He really started to figure that out during the second half of the season.”
While they signed veteran Jared Cook, the Packers felt comfortable enough with the three developmental tight ends on their roster – Backman, Justin Perillo and Mitchell Henry – that they didn’t draft a tight end to compete for the No. 3 job.
A sixth-round pick a year ago, Backman bested Perillo and Henry for the final spot at tight end with a strong finish to training camp.
Backman came on after a slow start, catching a 4-yard touchdown against Philadelphia on Aug. 29 before hauling in a difficult 20-yard pass across the middle in the preseason finale against New Orleans.
Perillo, entering his third NFL season, started last season on the practice squad but leapfrogged Backman as the primary backup to Richard Rodgers after his Oct. 14 promotion.
While working to pick up special teams and build trust on offense, Backman often spent his rookie season as a healthy scratch on Sundays.
“Anybody’s rookie year regardless of position I think is definitely a learning curve you have to take and go with, especially playing on the offensive side of the ball with 12 (quarterback Aaron Rodgers),” Backman said.
“There’s a lot of expectations. He’s capable of doing a lot, so you always have to be ready. That’s kind of the mindset that I took as far as learning and as far as trying to grow as an athlete.”
Recent history shows it’s not easy to make an immediate impact at the position. Nineteen tight ends were drafted in 2015, but only eight caught more than a single pass as rookies.
Coincidentally, it was an undrafted tight end – the New York Giants’ Will Tye – who led rookie tight ends in receiving with 42 catches for 464 yards and three touchdowns.
That’s little consolation to Backman, who hoped to make more of an immediate impact on the offense and special teams.
“I felt like I did all right,” Backman said. “I was definitely a little down on myself. But you have to take it positive, and take it as a learning curve, and kind of go with that.”
One of those 18 other tight ends drafted last year was Backman’s close friend, Rory “Busta” Anderson, a fellow Georgian who was a seventh-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
It was through his friendship with Anderson that Backman gained greater insight into Cook. Coincidentally, Anderson’s four years at South Carolina came soon after Cook’s time with the Gamecocks.
The two tight ends would talk about Cook even prior to his signing with the Packers in March. Thus far, he’s been a resource for the raw but athletic Backman.
“Jared knows Rory, so it’s kind of a little mutual thing like that,” Backman said. “Jared being Jared, he’s definitely approachable. He’s open. He’s from Georgia. I’m from Georgia, too. We have a lot of friends in common and a lot of mutual things in common.”
Backman split his offseason between his home in Georgia and Birmingham where he worked out at a D1 Sports Training facility that Packers defensive backs Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and LaDarius Gunter also frequented.
His offseason training centered on strength and speed, but the mental side of the game is just as important. Backman spent a lot of time working on the nuances of the offense and performing self-scout to pick up on possible tendencies.
“I think K.B. is getting more familiar with the system, working hard and learning,” new tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said. “It’s just learning the system, taking a jump from Year 1 to Year 2, which is what you hope with all rookies. I feel like right now he’s on the right track with that.”
Backman, who only turned 23 in February, hopes to make good on his potential in Year 2 after sitting in the shadows for most of last season.
With a full season under his belt, Backman understands what he needs to do to make a greater contribution and be the player the Packers feel he can be.
“I felt like it was such a learning curve my first year from learning the playbook to learning how to be a professional, learning the defenses,” Backman said.
“But I feel like now I’m starting to do better with that. It’s more just trying to dominate my position and what I can do to try to excel whether that’s blocking (or) dominating linebackers to get open.”