An oddity on the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 roster has been the lack of tight ends on the team. This is a franchise that is just a few years removed from carrying five such players, when they had Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, D.J. Williams, and Tom Crabtree all on the roster to start the 2011 season.
This year, the Packers have largely rolled with just two healthy tight ends. They did start the season with three - Jared Cook, Richard Rodgers, and Justin Perillo - but Cook’s injury and Perillo’s release when Cook returned to the lineup have left the Packers mainly with two. Instead, they have used a pair of fullbacks in recent weeks, often trotting out a three-back formation with both Aaron Ripkowski and Joe Kerridge lined up as blockers.
Adding a third tight end might give the offense a bit more versatility, however, and the team does have a pair of tight ends on the practice squad plus an open roster spot due to Mike Pennel’s suspension. Both players are undrafted free agents who spent training camps with other teams: Devon Cajuste and Beau Sandland. However, Cajuste in particular brings to the table some impressive athletic ability that could warrant a tryout down the stretch this season.
What sparked this discussion was a little nugget of news from the aftermath of Sunday’s Packers-Seahawks game. During that contest, Jared Cook was injured and did not return with what was described as a “chest” injury. Currently, reports point to him playing against the Bears, but speculation started up following the game about a potential replacement. In the midst of his postgame injury update piece, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Michael Cohen had this nugget regarding which player would be Cook’s likely replacement:
Director of football operations Eliot Wolf was seen talking to practice squad tight end Devon Cajuste in the locker room after the game. It's possible the Packers will sign Cajuste to the active roster and fill the roster spot left by defensive tackle Mike Pennel, who is suspended for the remainder of the regular season.
Even though Cook might not need a replacement this week, Cajuste can provide some fascinating athletic tools that nobody on this roster can presently match.
Between the two practice squad players, Sandland is bigger, is a pretty good athlete for the position, and is likely a better blocker, but he is more of the prototypical in-line tight end. Cajuste is truly an elite athlete, ranking in the 100th percentile for tight ends in his agility score, and projects as the kind of “move” tight end that is en vogue around the NFL today.
To illustrate the two players’ physical differences, here are breakdowns of their workouts at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine (plus Pro Day measurements reported by NFL Draft Scout):
|Drill||Devon Cajuste||Beau Sandland|
|Drill||Devon Cajuste||Beau Sandland|
|H/W||6036, 234||6044, 253|
|40 Time||4.62 (Pro Day: 4.57)||4.74|
|10-yard split||1.60 (Pro Day; 1.53)||1.67|
|Short Shuttle||4.20 s||4.33 s|
|3-Cone||6.49 s||7.10 s|
Look at that cone time that Cajuste put up. Just look at it. That’s faster than Jeff Janis’ blistering 6.64 in 2014, and that’s with Cajuste carrying an extra 15 pounds of weight on his frame. That time was the best of any player at the 2016 Combine regardless of position and the sixth-best in the last six years. If the Packers want to replace Cook’s ability in the passing game, then there’s no question which player is the best fit.
What is interesting is that the one area where Cook did not test well in his Combine back in 2009 is the agility drills. This is likely a reason why the Packers have asked him to challenge the field deep or to sit down at the sticks - he’s not likely to make tacklers miss in the open field or to get open with quickness, but rather does so with his pure size and speed. This likely explains why many of his big plays against Washington (6 catches, 105 yards, 1 TD) came when he was split wide rather than in the slot. Even his one big catch from the slot came on a go route when Rodgers lofted the ball up over his shoulder.
For Cajuste, however, running slants or digs from the slot could be a perfect role for him, allowing him to use his size and quickness (rather than size and straight-line speed) to beat smaller defensive backs or linebackers in the middle of the field. He also has ample speed to threaten down the middle of the field, and his 17.7 yards-per-catch average in college suggests that he can still go deep, but he is far more of a YAC threat than either Cook or Rodgers. Sure, blocking could be a concern, but again, that’s not really Cook’s strength anyway.
Unless Cook’s injury proves to be serious enough to keep him out on Sunday, Cajuste probably will not be called up to the 53-man roster. But with an empty spot on the 53, it’s fun to consider.