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TEs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
83
Tom Crabtree
6-4
245
26
 2
Miami (Ohio)
81
Andrew Quarless
6-4
252
 23
2
Penn State
82
Ryan Taylor
6-3
254
24
 R
North Carolina
84
D.J. Williams
6-2
245
23
 R
Arkansas
 
Free agents
No.
Name
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
88
Jermichael Finley
6-5
247
24
 4
Texas

The good news:  As the tight end position grows in importance in the modern-day NFL game, the Green Bay Packers were actually ahead of the curve last season when they kept a whopping five of them – Finley, the starter who was coming off a season-ending knee injury that robbed him of all but four full games of his 2010 season; Quarless, who appeared to have made a significant jump in his second year after inheriting the starting job from an injured Finley as a rookie; Crabtree, a blue-collar blocker and special-teamer who’d earned a roster spot in 2010 training camp; and rookies Taylor and Williams, who each showed promise. While Finley’s impending free agency is arguably the biggest issue facing the team in the offseason, the position is at least stocked with solid players, even if none is the rare talent that Finley is. Crabtree and Taylor in particular have gained quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ trust. According to Rodgers, both players know the offense well, and Rodgers went so far as to compare Taylor to a young Mark Chmura, a member of the Packers Hall of Fame and a three-time Pro Bowl tight end. When Quarless went down with a catastrophic knee injury Dec. 4 at New York, Rodgers said it was “about time” Taylor got to play. Taylor made the team as a rookie seventh-round pick and was a factor almost immediately on special teams, but late in the season he showed he deserves more snaps on offense, too.

The bad news:  For starters, Quarless’ injury has to be a concern. He suffered the injury on Dec. 4, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, and didn’t have surgery until Jan. 9. While coach Mike McCarthy said he expected Quarless to be ready to practice on a limited basis once training camp opens this summer, that’s no sure thing. While not as gifted as Finley as a receiver, Quarless vastly improved as a blocker in his second season and challenged Crabtree for the title of best blocker of the group. At the time of his injury, Quarless might’ve even surpassed him. Then, there’s Finley’s situation. The team had hoped to get a long-term deal done during the season, according to a club source, but that never materialized, and now Finley’s status is up in the air. The window for using the franchise tag opens next week and stays open until March 5; unrestricted free agency opens on March 13. While Finley’s immense talent and age (24) seemingly would make re-signing him a no-brainer, he did rank fifth in the NFL in drops last season (11) and, according to tight ends coach-turned-quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, needs to be more detailed in his preparation and fundamentals.

The big question: It’s not just the biggest question at the position, it may be the biggest question facing the team: Will Finley be back? But that’s not the only question regarding the player Rodgers affectionately calls “the big fella.” Finley said last week that talks between the team and his agent, Blake Baratz, have been “here and there,” and given what McCarthy said about him after the team’s season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Giants, it’s hard to fathom him not returning. “He wants to be a great player and thinks he’s going to be a great player. With his talent level, that’s half the battle,” McCarthy said. “I look for him to continuing to develop and establishing himself definitely as one of the (great) tight ends, Pro Bowl tight ends, in this league.” You simply don’t say that about a guy you plan on letting walk as a free agent. But it could mean using the franchise tag on him, and that comes with its own issues, too: While the tight end number is expected to be a very affordable $5.5 million one-year guaranteed deal, will it lead to a long-term accord, or Finley being unhappy? Multiple reports have suggested that he would petition the league to be categorized as a wide receiver if the tag is applied, which would carry a tag of about $9 million, and when asked about the franchise tag, Finley replied: “If we go down the franchise tag way, nobody wants that. Everybody wants the long-term deal done and not the trouble that comes with the franchise tag.” In addition, if the team can’t get a long-term deal done with Finley before March 5, the odds of using the tag on backup quarterback Matt Flynn go from slim to none.

Offseason outlook: While the fact that Quarless showed appreciable improvement in Year 2 despite the offseason being wiped out by labor unrest and the resulting lockout may show that such offseason work isn’t as vital as once thought, having Taylor and Williams in the offseason program should accelerate their development. They’ll have a new position coach in Jerry Fontenot after McAdoo’s promotion to QBs coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if the position is coached any differently by a guy who played 16 NFL seasons at center. Quarless won’t do much beyond rehabilitate his injury, while Crabtree and his wife essentially live in Green Bay year ‘round, so he’ll be part of the program when it kicks off in April. Again, the question is Finley. If the Packers end up putting the franchise tag on him, will he sign it or a long-term deal in time to attend workouts? Calling franchise-tagged players “holdouts” has always been a misnomer because they’re technically not under contract, meaning they’re not really holding out. But given Finley’s vast potential and his stated desire to be viewed as one of the NFL’s best at his position – where currently New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis are more highly regarded – it will be interesting to watch how his offseason plays out. While he might have finished 12th among tight ends in receiving yards and 14th in receptions last season (55 receptions, 767 yards, eight TDs), he certainly believes he’s much better than those rankings. The 2012 season will be his chance to prove it.

Next: Offensive line.

– Jason Wilde

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