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Packers’ new tight ends reflect a shift in offensive philosophy across the NFL

With defenses getting smaller and faster, the Packers’ free agent moves will help them be bigger and more physical in 2017.

NFL: Green Bay Packers OTA Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Once the shock of the Green Bay Packers’ biggest free agent signing in years wore off, the team’s fans got another shock when Ted Thompson signed a second player in the same weekend at the same position. Martellus Bennett made the headlines early on in the 2017 free agency period, then Milwaukee native Lance Kendricks’ homecoming put an exclamation point on the upheaval on the tight end depth chart.

The Packers are notorious for using “11” personnel — one running back and one tight end, with three wide receivers — on an unusually large number of offensive plays. This makes sense for a team that carried seven wideouts on the opening 53-man roster a year ago and has big money and draft capital invested in that position.

However, with two big, athletic tight ends added to the offense, head coach Mike McCarthy expects to run significantly more plays out of two-tight end sets — “12” personnel with one back and two tight ends, or even “22” personnel with two of each — than the Packers have run over the past several years. While this is a new wrinkle and a new evolution of the Packers’ offense, it is indicative of a gradual shift in offensive philosophy that has been gaining more traction across the NFL as a response to defense’s approaches.

As Robert Mays of The Ringer wrote on Monday, NFL defenses are sacrificing size for speed, and the pendulum is starting to swing back the other direction on offense:

If the tendencies of the NFL’s elite last season are any indication, offenses plan to react to shrinking defenders and positionless football by promptly reversing course ...

Most of the teams that utilize blocking backs and hefty formations are linked in some way, and all embrace a similar philosophy. By grinding undersized run-stoppers into dust, heavy packages are a way to mine a growing inefficiency for defenses built to live in the nickel formation. But the benefits don’t end there. Using tight ends and fullbacks also allows offenses to create mismatches, some of which may seem counterintuitive at first glance. Those varied advantages are why, as defenses get uniformly fast, the league’s smartest offenses are countering by getting big.

Mays’ examples include a power running team in the Tennessee Titans, who employ two big, bruising running backs and a powerful offensive line. Of course, under McCarthy, the Packers have never really had the reputation of being an offense that wants to punish you physically on the ground, save perhaps for the second half of 2013 when the team relied on a rookie Eddie Lacy to keep the team afloat when a broken collarbone sidelined Aaron Rodgers. Ultimately, this is and will always be Rodgers’ team, and the Packers are not going to morph into a Titans-like offense with the current personnel on the roster.

Instead, the better blueprint for the Packers is Bennett’s previous team, the New England Patriots. Look through Mays’ piece for a thorough discussion of how Bill Belichick’s squad uses heavy packages as passing formations, but keep in mind the personnel that they had running those plays. Bennett and Kendricks will be the key to the offense’s effectiveness in 12 and 22 personnel because of their well-rounded skill sets.

Both players are plus blockers, with Bennett playing primarily on the line and Kendricks offering plenty of positional versatility. That will allow McCarthy to use them both on running plays, offering looks with Kendricks as a blocker out of the backfield in more of a typical I-formation as well as a more traditional double-tight end set with either a single back or a tailback/fullback backfield. However, when defenses have to commit to stopping the run, McCarthy can unleash those players’ athleticism and receiving ability by sending them downfield, as the Patriots did frequently with Bennett.

Sprinkling in even 7 or 8 snaps per game of two-tight-end personnel will be a massive increase from the approach with Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers over the past few years, and the personnel running it should also be significant upgrades. This added flexibility that the Packers now have should make their offense even deadlier in 2017.