Today we continue our look at the intriguing position battles the Green Bay Packers are set to have in OTA's and minicamp practices before the start of Training Camp in the fall. Wednesday we broke down the backup running backs, and we'll now look at the group competing for the starting job at tight end.
Leading the group in the three main statistical categories in 2014 (receptions, yards and touchdowns), six-year veteran Andrew Quarless is likely to begin the summer program as the starter once again, but that may not be the case by the end of August. Depending on whether or not Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' coaching staff feels confident in second-year player Richard Rodgers very much factors into if Quarless will lose his job.
Let's look at the players among the group competing for the starting job.
Sixth NFL season, Penn State
6'4", 252 pounds
Quarless has the best connection with the 2014 NFL MVP among the players at the position after being targeted 46 times last season. After battling injuries in the early portion of his career - which included him missing all of the 2012 season because of a knee injury - Quarless has now played in all 16 regular season games in back-to-back seasons for the Packers. Although he's probably the most reliable player at the position, he falls near the bottom when you rank starting tight ends across the NFL, and his peak doesn't appear to be much further from what he's already displayed.
Second NFL season, California
6'4". 257 pounds
Dating back to his college days at Cal, Richard Rodgers has always had a good knack for catching the football. Playing sparingly for the first portion of his rookie season, Rodgers saw his numbers increase in the last four games of the season, catching 12 passes on 14 targets from Aaron Rodgers. What's lacking for Rodgers so far is his blocking ability. He doesn't posses the ideal strength yet to move and hold blocks at the line of scrimmage, and his technique could use some work. Still, Rodgers is only entering his second season and if there's any player that has a good chance of taking Quarless' starting job, it's him. If he continues to improve and the Packers believe he's ready for the full-time position, there's a solid chance he'll start Week 1.
Second NFL season, Maine
6'3", 250 pounds
Perillo was originally signed by the Packers as an undrafted free agent last May. He spent most of the regular season last year on the Packers' practice squad before earning a midseason promotion to the active roster to help out on special teams, which is his likely role moving forward. It's highly unlikely he will compete for the starting tight end job, but he should be in the running for the 53-man roster once again.
First NFL season, University of Alabama-Birmingham
6'3", 245 pounds
The Packers used their last pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Backman, selecting him in the sixth round. Before making his full-switch to football, Backman was an all-state basketball player at Whitefield Academy in Georgia, and doesn't have any concerns with playing physically at the next level. He'll likely fight for just a spot on special teams with Perillo, but with 4.6 speed (which was faster than all but two tight ends at this year's NFL Scouting Combine) and a big build, he has the potential to become a solid pro. Just don't expect substantial numbers, especially early on. As a senior, he only caught 39 passes for 399 yards and three scores.
First NFL season, Western Kentucky
6'4", 252 pounds
The Packers signed Henry as an undrafted free agent after the draft, and unless he shows something unexpected, he's likely competing for a practice squad position.
Will Rodgers actually beat out Quarless?
Last year at this time, the Packers had a crowded tight end group for competition, but that soon faltered as the summer carried on due to injuries to Colt Lyerla and Brandon Bostick. A year later, it's only a two-man race between the veteran Quarless and the youngster Rodgers. So what will Rodgers have to do to beat him out?
One thing that held Rodgers back from emerging earlier in the season and in camp was his inexperience. There was plenty of high praise for his catching ability in OTAs and training camp (including some from his quarterback), but his comfort level with the offense and with his quarterback eventually reduced his playing time at the beginning of the season. He now has a year under his belt and showed signs of progression as the season wore on last year, so I think he does have a good chance at taking the job away from Quarless. If that does happen, it will be interesting to see if the Packers decide to hang onto Quarless for depth purposes, or if they elect to let him go and prepare to move on with their young pupils at the position. Keep in mind that Quarless is only signed through this season.
For now, Quarless has the advantage mostly because of his experience and familiarity with Rodgers under center, which only came with due time. It's looking like that will eventually happen for Richard Rodgers, but whether or not it will be this year is the big question.
Last year four players made the Packers 53-man roster after training camp, with Quarless and Rodgers being included, followed by Brandon Bostick (now a Viking) and Ryan Taylor (who was waived a few weeks into the season). If Green Bay elects to go the same route after summer activities this year, I think Perillo and Backman are likely to find work on special teams and take those two spots, with Henry probably being the odd man out.
If I had to make a prediction, I think Quarless loses his job in August, but the Packers will keep him on the roster just in case Rodgers regresses. Regardless of what happens, the starting tight end job is one to monitor going into the summer once again.