The signing of tight end Matthew Mulligan yesterday has brought the Green Bay Packers' crop of tight ends into the forefront of fans' and writers' minds alike. In Mulligan, the team seems to have found a good blocker whose receiving skills have not impressed much. How does that change the dynamic of the position? We'll attempt to answer that question by looking at each player in turn.
Finley is what he is by this point in his career. It is unlikely that he will ever develop into a player who is thought of highly for his blocking. Packers fans have been frustrated to no end with Finley, and at times they have been right to criticize him. However, he still poses the same matchup problems based on his size and athleticism that he has his entire career and when he's on, he's really good.
Over the last seven games of 2012, Finley averaged 4.6 catches and 56.6 receiving yards per game. I know it's a stretch to do this, but project those numbers out to 16 games and you have a 73-catch, 900-yard season, which is darn good for a tight end. That should be Finley's goal this season, and it's a goal that I think is absolutely achievable if he can put a complete season together.
Just don't ask him to block a defensive end one-on-one.
Barring injury or some sort of trade, Finley will be the starter and primary receiving target from the position. My hope, however, is that Andrew Quarless' return and Mulligan's signing allow him to split out more as a wide receiver so he can pose matchup problems without sacrificing a capable blocker on the line.
Speaking of Quarless, he appears in line to take over as the primary blocking tight end. That knee injury still haunts him though, and it remains to be seen whether he has regained the 4.68 speed that he ran at the 2010 scouting combine and made him a dual-threat possibility.
Another issue that plagued Quarless early in his career was inconsistency. In his rookie season, he only caught 3 or more passes in three games, despite becoming the primary receiving tight end by default due to Finley's injury. Furthermore, he was virtually nonexistent in the passing game in 2011 when asked to take more of a blocking role. If he is indeed healthy and can continue to develop his receiving skills, he could be a dual-threat tight end; however, that does not seem to be the case as yet.
Williams is an enigma. He came in two years ago highly touted for his receiving ability, but has spent most of his time as a blocker and is working his way back into more of an H-back role. Perhaps it is a height issue that is preventing him from being more of an in-line receiver, as he stands the shortest of any Packers tight end at 6'2", but it seems that inconsistency more than anything is his problem. He will need to make a big impact this off-season if Packers fans will think of him as more than a disappointing 5th-round draft pick.
Taylor's impact on special teams is well-known around these parts, but with having such a minimal impact on offense it's entirely possible that he may be an odd man out when training camp wraps up. Honestly I have very little that I can say about him other than that his roster status will likely have a lot to do with how the team is going to approach the special teams units in 2013.
Here we have another young player who is looked at as more of a receiving option than a blocker. Bostick was on the practice squad all through the 2013 season. He will almost certainly need to show improved blocking ability and technique if he wants to make the roster this year.
Bob McGinn of the Journal-Sentinel has a great write-up on Mulligan's skill set, quoting a scout who said "He's going to be a better blocker than Williams and probably be a little better blocker than Taylor." The scout also indicated that he may have some limited success in the passing game but that "he wont do much after (the catch)."
With the way the Packers use their tight ends, that may be enough. But my hunch is that Mulligan will end up not making the roster when week one rolls around. Thinking that he is a Tom Crabtree clone isn't really an accurate assessment; though they're both from smaller schools and have had to work hard for their opportunities, Crabtree appears to be more athletic and is more versatile as a receiver and on special teams than Mulligan.
I think that Mulligan could be an odd man out in Green Bay in training camp. If any of these things happen I could see other players being kept over him: the Packers draft a tight end in the fourth round or earlier; Quarless is healthy, in shape, and appears to have retained his solid blocking ability; Brandon Bostick shows some blocking chops to go with his receiving talent; D.J. Williams steps up and becomes a more complete player; or Ryan Taylor works his way into a productive player on offensive snaps as well as just special teams. Since the Packers are not a power running team, it seems to me that Mulligan's style of play will be hard-pressed to earn him a roster spot without developing some more skill in the passing game.