The Green Bay Packers had a glaring need at the tight end position until Thursday of last week. In the grand scheme of roster construction, a conventional, in-line, blocking tight end is hardly a top priority; however, the Packers lacked one until the apparent signing of free agent Marcedes Lewis.
Although contract details are unknown at this point — in fact, the signing has not yet been officially processed by the NFL — Lewis’ signing shakes up the depth chart at the tight end position. When we close the book on training camp and look ahead to week one of the 2018 regular season, Lewis very well could be a de facto starter at tight end.
Bear with me.
The Packers have signed five notable free agent tight ends over the past three seasons. Two of them, Jared Cook in 2016 and Jimmy Graham in 2018, are essentially receiving-only weapons who will be split out wide or in the slot on most of their snaps. Two, Martellus Bennett and Lewis, are more traditional in-line tight ends, capable of being both exceptional blockers as well as useful pieces in the passing game. The fifth, Lance Kendricks, is a versatile player who can line up anywhere, including in the backfield, and who is capable in all aspects of the game without excelling in any.
Three of these players are now on the roster: Graham, Kendricks, and Lewis. Of course, Cook departed for Oakland last year following contract talks breaking down with the Packers; that in turn led to Bennett’s signing, and Green Bay fans would all rather just forget that saga.
For 2018, however, the usage of the Packers’ tight ends will be fascinating to watch. Again, Graham is the starter at tight end, but he occupies that position in name only. In fact, he had a famous contract dispute with the New Orleans Saints a few years ago, in which he argued that he should be paid as a receiver rather than a tight end under the franchise tag. An NFL arbitrator ruled him to be a tight end, costing him over $5 million for the 2014 season.
If the Packers’ usage of Cook is any indication, however, they will be perfectly comfortable using Graham as an exceptionally big receiver. That leaves Kendricks and Lewis to duke it out for the duties as the de facto starting in-line tight end.
We know this about Lewis — he is an exceptional blocker. That alone should be enough to earn him at least a spot on the roster, and it should not be a surprise if that quality leapfrogs him over Kendricks.
Lewis still offers enough as a receiver to make him more than just a dedicated blocker, however. Admittedly, Lewis’ receiving numbers have waned over the past five years, with his last high-volume receiving season coming in 2012. However, as has been said of Kendricks and Cook before him, Lewis has dealt with some atrocious quarterback play over the years, with Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles throwing the football in Jacksonville. In fact, his numbers in 2017 indicate that he can still be a factor with improved quarterback play.
With Lewis’ addition, it is easy to imagine the Packers using a 12 package (one running back and two tight ends) as their base offense instead of their traditional 11 personnel. However, the Packers’ 12 could look more like a conventional 11 because of Graham’s skill set. Imagine a base set of Davante Adams and Graham split wide with Randall Cobb in the slot, Lewis in-line at tight end, and one of the three running backs in the backfield. They could also put Graham in the slot and line up Cobb, Geronimo Allison, or another wideout on the boundary. These would appear to be more versatile packages than putting three traditional wide receivers on the field and picking one of Graham and Kendricks to put on the line or in the backfield as an H-back.
All told, Lewis seems like a sure bet to make the 53-man roster at this stage, based purely on the Packers’ lack of depth at the position and particularly their lack of other tight ends who are proven to be good blockers. A potential cascade effect would be Kendricks’ roster spot appearing to be less certain. If the Packers see development and special teams ability over the summer from one of their young players — Emanuel Byrd, Kevin Rader, or Ryan Smith — it would not come as a huge shock to see Kendricks released. Furthermore, the terms of his contract would allow the Packers to save over $1.5 million in salary cap space by cutting Kendricks.
There are still 100 days to go until the 2018 NFL regular season opens up, but for now the newest Packer appears to be in line to be a significant contributor this fall.