GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy always has subscribed to the notion that the fastest way to the end zone is down the middle of the field.
Three weeks into free agency, the Packers Head Coach already has gained two new weapons to help his offense get there.
The Packers’ growing emphasis on tight ends was apparent early this offseason when general manager Ted Thompson added former Pro Bowler Martellus Bennett and Milwaukee native Lance Kendricks during the first week of free agency.
Bennett and Kendricks bring a combined 15 years of NFL experience to the Packers’ offense, which also returns fourth-year tight end Richard Rodgers.
The three veterans have combined for 715 catches for 7,425 yards and 59 touchdowns during their NFL careers, starting nearly three-quarters of the regular-season games they’ve played in (202 of 276).
When mapping out the vision for the Packers’ offense for next season, McCarthy believes the tight-end position will play an important role in the structure of the offense.
“We have three very good tight ends now, three veteran tight ends,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday at the NFL Owners meetings in Phoenix.
“All three of them have played a lot of football in the NFL and obviously are very productive. Regardless of the personnel group, I’ve always viewed offense as a two-back offense or a one-back offense and conceptually we travel through those two situations and we’ll do the same with these tight ends, but they definitely gives us more flexibility.”
At last year’s owners meetings, McCarthy mentioned how the appreciation for tight ends and safeties has grown in the NFL with the two positions playing an increasingly pivotal role in teams controlling the middle of the field.
That belief could be seen in how the Packers utilized veteran tight end Jared Cook and hybrid safety Morgan Burnett last season. It was further reinforced when the Packers signed Bennett on March 10.
Thompson told reporters earlier this week he received a few playful jabs from his contemporaries in Arizona about how active the Packers have been in free agency this year.
A day after signing Bennett, they inked Kendricks to a contract after a visit. The former Wisconsin standout and Rufus King High School alumnus had a career-high 50 receptions for the Rams in 2016, starting all 16 games.
More recently, Green Bay also brought back former fourth-round cornerback Davon House and signed veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, but Bennett’s acquisition drew the most attention.
Regarded by many as the top tight end on the market, Bennett has caught more than 55 passes in each of the last five seasons. Highly durable, the 30-year-old tight end has missed only nine regular-season games in his nine NFL seasons.
“It’s his God-given talent,” Thompson told packers.com when asked about what he liked about Bennett on Monday. “He can run. He can catch. He has great hand-eye coordination. He’s a marvelous basketball player if we need him for our offseason basketball team. I just think he brings a lot of stuff to help us out.”
McCarthy came away impressed with Bennett during the tight end’s visit to Lambeau Field. Most of the Packers’ coaching staff already had been familiar with Bennett from the three seasons he spent with the Chicago Bears from 2013-15.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end was selected to the Pro Bowl during his second season with the Bears after catching 90 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns in 2014.
In his lone season with New England, Bennett finished ninth among NFL tight ends with 701 receiving yards. His career-high seven touchdowns tied for third-most at the position.
While Bennett is known for his big personality, McCarthy feels confident the 10th-year veteran will fit comfortably into the Packers’ locker room.
“He impressed a lot of people,” McCarthy said. “You have reputations and things like that, but I thought our personnel guys did a great job in the research. I enjoyed my time with him with the creativity and the personality, but more importantly what he brings to the program. I think he’ll be a good fit for us.”
The addition of Bennett and Kendricks created some questions about how the Packers plan to utilize their three tight ends, especially after the team ended last season with only Cook and Rodgers on the active roster.
McCarthy believes there’s room for all three to contribute. One other change he envisions is the Packers playing their tight ends more on the line of scrimmage next season after displacing them outside and in the backfield for much of 2016.
Bennett frequently played outside in the Patriots’ offense, but McCarthy hopes to bring Bennett closer to the football. It’s a logical move given the praise the veteran tight end has received for his blocking ability throughout his career.
“I’m looking forward to playing more with the tight end on the line of scrimmage,” McCarthy said. “That’s definitely something that will be different this year than we’ve done in the past. That exists already. We need to do a better job playing to the specifics and details of our offensive scheme.”