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Packers 2017 Acquisitions: Tight Ends show the risk of heavy free agent investment

The performance of the Packers’ tight ends in 2017 illustrates why Ted Thompson was so averse to taking risks in free agency throughout his career.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2017 season. Today, we examine the tight end position.

Ted Thompson made a rare foray into unrestricted free agency in March of 2017, bringing aboard the Packers’ biggest free agent signing since Julius Peppers and the biggest name in unrestricted free agency since landing Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett in 2006.

The position he invested in was tight end, and the big-name player coming aboard was Martellus Bennett, fresh off a successful season with the New England Patriots. Reports came out that the Packers tried to sign incumbent Jared Cook to a similar deal to the one they gave Bennett, but his agent turned it down. Cook, apparently misjudging the market for his services, ended up on Oakland on a shorter deal for less money per year and less guaranteed.

Days later, the Packers doubled down at the position, adding street free agent Lance Kendricks, who had been released by the Los Angeles Rams. With those two on board and Richard Rodgers on the final year of his rookie contract, things were looking promising at the position for 2017.

Nobody predicted how the next six months would go.

Martellus Bennett

How acquired: Signed March 10 as unrestricted free agent; 3-year, $21 million contract, $6.3 million guaranteed as signing bonus
2017 stats: 7 games, 7 starts; 38 targets, 24 receptions, 233 yards (9.7 yards per reception), 0 TDs

The return on investment for Bennett was hilariously small, thanks to drops galore and the poisoned relationship between him and the Packers following Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury and his own shoulder issues.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that the Packers will carry $4.2 million in dead money against the salary cap in 2018 unless they can successfully petition the league to force Bennett to return that portion of his signing bonus. The only reason that this might not be the worst possible scenario for signing an unrestricted free agent is that the Packers made the decision to release him early enough that he will not count against the team’s compensatory draft picks in 2018.

With Bennett now off the table for that calculation, the Packers likely will improve their final comp pick up from a sixth-rounder to a fifth-rounder, in all likelihood leaving them with a third and three fifths.

Lance Kendricks

How acquired: Signed March 11 as street free agent (released by Rams); 2 year, $4 million contract, $1.2 million guaranteed as signing bonus
2017 Stats: 16 games, 9 starts; 35 targets, 18 receptions, 203 yards (11.3 yards per reception), 1 TD

While Bennett’s flame-out was memorable, Kendricks provided a quiet but steady presence at tight end, mainly splitting snaps with Richard Rodgers. Kendricks ended up lining up on the field for 45% of the team’s snaps while pitching in another 16% of special teams snaps as well.

In that time, he had only modest production as a receiver and as a blocker, however. Still, his contributions were reasonable given the low dollar amount that he signed for in the offseason. Keeping him around for next season is a no-brainer.

Emanuel Byrd

How acquired: Signed to practice squad November 3, promoted to active roster December 26; 2-year, $945,000 contract
2017 Stats: 1 game played; 2 targets, 2 receptions, 31 yards (15.5 yards per reception), 0 TDs

Byrd was brought back on the practice squad after spending most of training camp in Green Bay, and the job offer even pulled him away from the teaching career he had begun to work toward. A decent athlete, Byrd showed a little bit of receiving ability in his sole regular season game, and should be back through the offseason to compete for a roster spot.