GREEN BAY – For various reasons, getting a full evaluation of all the reserve tight ends fighting for roster spots has been a difficult task for position coach Jerry Fontenot.
It’s made Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Saints a vitally important game for Justin Perillo and rookies Mitchell Henry and Kennard Backman.
Perillo sustained a concussion in the preseason opener in New England and was cleared in time to play a limited amount in last Saturday’s game, but Tuesday was his first public practice in more than two weeks.
Henry broke a finger earlier in camp and had been practicing with a club cast on his hand – a significant hindrance to blocking and catching effectively – but now is out of the cast and can play Thursday night with only a splint on his damaged finger.
Backman has been the healthiest of the bunch and has six receptions in three preseason games, but the sixth-round pick hasn’t locked up a job. His touchdown grab last Saturday against Philadelphia was a big boost of confidence for a player who early in camp was dropping too many passes.
“With the last preseason game, we’re planning on those guys getting a pretty good dose of playing time,” Fontenot said. “So it will be a good time to evaluate what guys will be the most ready to help us out during the season.”
The evaluation goes beyond the receiving statistics and also includes run blocking and pass protection. Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless are the team’s top two tight ends, but the 53-man roster has generally carried more than that, and with Quarless potentially facing league discipline, depth at the position is necessary.
Perillo, who spent time on both the practice squad and active roster as an undrafted rookie last year, is the most experienced and was off to a solid start in the preseason before the concussion setback.
Henry never missed a practice as a result of his injury but hasn’t really been able to show all he can do, especially as a pass-catcher. Fontenot called him a “natural” run blocker whose route-running fundamentals need to be “smoothed out.”
Backman has caught the ball more consistently as camp has worn on but needs the mental side of his game to speed up, a normal next step for a rookie at this stage.
“Kennard has developed nicely,” Fontenot said. “More than anything, he just needs to be able to re-generate information on the field, and not just spit it back to me whenever I ask him a question. I want to see it in action on the field, in terms of what kinds of things we’re going to adjust to when the defense gives us a certain look.”
That can be tricky in an offense as complex as Green Bay’s, but once it starts to click, the rest of a player’s ability usually begins to shine through.
“I’m just trying to limit my assignment errors,” Backman said. “That’s what a lot of it comes down to, being in the right place. You can’t make a play if you’re in the wrong place.”
Special teams also will factor into the final roster decisions at tight end, and clean play could go a long way given all the miscues on return and coverage units last Saturday.
The Packers’ special teams began the game by allowing a long kickoff return by the Eagles, and things only got worse. By night’s end, the units had been flagged eight times. Called too tightly by the officiating crew or not, that outing gives them plenty to shore up with one preseason game to go.
“You never condone any penalties, but when you start having foolish penalties – guys clipping and hitting in the back, bad stuff – then you have some issues,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “But sometimes, the aggressive ones, you can coach that. You want to coach right to the edge.
“If you realize they’re calling it like that, then we can’t be on that edge. We have to be smarter.”
With Ty Montgomery (hamstring), Randall Cobb (shoulder) and Micah Hyde (neck) currently injured, return duties will continue to be spread around. No. 3 RB Rajion Neal on kickoffs and receiver Jeff Janis on punts have taken reps in prior games.
Zook isn’t concerned at this point with having to find potential Week 1 replacements for his top choices, though.
“I don’t think we have to worry about that right now,” he said. “I don’t want to get into if-ands. I’m counting on Randall and Micah being there first game. I don’t see any reason why they won’t be.
“Montgomery is going to be fine. He’s got to get a little bit better. You just have to keep putting the ball in their hands and let it happen.”
For all the coverage from the final week of training camp, click here.