GREEN BAY – Richard Rodgers didn’t require an explanation.
The Packers’ tight end, in the midst of preparing for his third NFL season, was neither surprised nor disillusioned when he learned the team had signed Jared Cook on March 28.
In fact, Rodgers welcomed the move.
He understood the upside to the Packers adding an established veteran to a young tight ends room that could benefit from Cook’s seven years of NFL experience.
“Whenever a veteran comes in, you just try to learn from them,” Rodgers said. “He knows little things about defenses and things about playing the position that maybe a coach can’t give you. It’s been great having him around and giving us advice.”
Stockpiling proven tight ends has become a popular trend in the NFL. It not only ensures depth at the position, but also helps create mismatches with multiple tight end sets.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has long been a proponent of the position, occasionally keeping as many as five on the active roster during his time in Green Bay.
McCarthy underscored the tight end’s importance at the NFL owners meeting in March. In his mind, the growing need to have a playmaker in the middle of the field has made it a “prominent position” given the evolution of NFL offenses.
Less than a week after the owners meeting ended, the Packers made their most significant offseason move in signing Cook, who has 273 catches, 3,503 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 107 regular-season games.
Neither McCarthy nor Rodgers saw the acquisition of Cook as an indictment of Green Bay’s tight ends, but rather an opportunity to add experience and athleticism to the offense.
“I don’t think players really view it that way,” McCarthy said. “I think any time you bring in a player at their particular position – particularly veteran players – veteran players understand that you need as many as good players as you possibly can. That’s why you do everything you can as far as building a 90-man roster. I would definitely think Richard welcomes that.”
Last year was further proof of the value of having multiple options at the position. The Packers were caught shorthanded early in the season after veteran Andrew Quarless injured his knee in Week 3 against Kansas City.
Rodgers already was entrenched as the Packers’ starting tight end at the time, but Quarless’ injury resulted in Rodgers’ playing time growing exponentially from his rookie season.
His 799 offensive snaps were 10th-most among all NFL tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. Playing time led to production – Rodgers was second on the team with 58 receptions and tied for the team high with eight TD catches – but his yards per reception dipped from 11.3 as a rookie to 8.8.
The numbers, Rodgers says, are for the pundits to worry about. His job is to catch the football and make plays. This offseason has been about helping hone those skills.
Rodgers has worked extensively with new tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, catching passes on the sidelines during organized team activities and minicamp to sharpen his fundamentals and timing.
“Anytime you get an opportunity to work in an environment where it’s a little slowed down tempo and more of a teach tempo … you can go through things and maybe detail them a little bit better,” said Angelichio, who was hired in February after overseeing Gary Barnidge’s Pro Bowl season last year in Cleveland.
“A lot of times out there we’re trying to get the plays, as many as we can get, and get it on the tape and really talk through some of the details.”
Aside from Cook, the Packers made no major additions at tight end this offseason. They’re counting on the development of Rodgers, 2015 sixth-round pick Kennard Backman, and former undrafted free agents Justin Perillo and Mitchell Henry to galvanize the position.
Rodgers has made progress his first two seasons. He even won the ESPY Play of the Year for catching the game-winning Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers during the Packers’ 27-23 win over Detroit in December.
Comparatively, his 78 catches and 10 touchdowns during his first two seasons are the most among the 10 tight ends selected during the 2014 NFL Draft. His 735 receiving yards trail only Detroit’s Eric Ebron (785), who was the 10th overall pick.
His goal this offseason was to develop into more of an “all-around” tight end. He’s striving to be more consistent across the board from route-running to run-blocking.
Rodgers had plenty of reps to fine-tune his work this offseason with Cook sitting out of the end of OTAs and minicamp with a foot injury. Now, it’s about carrying his progress over to training camp later this month.
Only time will tell what impact the Cook and Rodgers partnership will have on the offense. As it stands, both the Packers and Rodgers are excited about the possibilities.
“We’re just trying to work through it,” Rodgers said. “Obviously when you have two tight ends on the field, it creates some matchup problems. We’ll see where that goes.”