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Packers look to regain tight end productivity against NFC North foes in 2018

Green Bay’s two offseason additions should pave the way for more aerial activity next season.

Chicago Bears v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It was a splash signing that brought former Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to Green Bay in March. A late pickup of Marcedes Lewis led another seasoned veteran to 1265 Lombardi Avenue last week. Now, the Packers hope to parlay their pair of offseason acquisitions into larger tight end production versus divisional opponents in 2018.

A February article examined the Packers’ need for more potency at the position with the return of Joe Philbin. Unbeknownst to this writer, Green Bay’s front office had bigger plans than anticipated with the addition of a more expensive, big-bodied player to stretch the field in Graham. While Green Bay did not utilize the draft to bring in talent at tight end, it did make use of post-draft free agency to land Lewis, an excellent blocker who also offers help in the red zone and short-to-intermediate passing game. Along with the returning Lance Kendricks, Green Bay now boasts three tight ends with varying skillsets and a combined 27 NFL seasons of experience.

Those factors should help the Packers against NFC North opponents after two seasons of average to below-average outputs from the position. Green Bay had seen promising production during the 2015 season from Richard Rodgers, including a sensational eight-catch, 146-yard day against Detroit late in the season (highlighted by a certain Hail Mary reception). However, outside of a couple solid performances from a healthy Jared Cook during the 2016 season (which significantly raised the position’s yardage totals), Green Bay’s tight ends have struggled to truly impact games against division rivals over the last two years.

2017 Packers Tight Ends vs. Divisional Opponents

Opponent Week Player Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Opponent Week Player Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Chicago Bears 4 Martellus Bennett 7 6 39 0
Chicago Bears 4 Lance Kendricks 1 1 0 0
Minnesota Vikings 6 Martellus Bennett 4 2 22 0
Detroit Lions 9 Lance Kendricks 3 2 32 0
Detroit Lions 9 Richard Rodgers 2 1 5 0
Chicago Bears 10 Lance Kendricks 2 1 9 0
Chicago Bears 10 Richard Rodgers 1 1 8 0
Minnesota Vikings 16 Lance Kendricks 9 4 36 0
Detroit Lions 17 Emanuel Byrd 2 2 31 0
Totals 31 20 182 0

2016 Packers Tight Ends vs. Divisional Opponents

Opponent Week Player Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Opponent Week Player Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Minnesota Vikings 2 Jared Cook 6 4 31 0
Minnesota Vikings 2 Richard Rodgers 2 2 25 0
Detroit Lions 3 Richard Rodgers 3 2 9 1
Chicago Bears 7 Richard Rodgers 1 1 7 0
Chicago Bears 15 Jared Cook 8 6 85 0
Chicago Bears 15 Richard Rodgers 1 1 10 0
Minnesota Vikings 16 Jared Cook 5 3 37 0
Minnesota Vikings 16 Richard Rodgers 2 2 20 1
Detroit Lions 17 Jared Cook 8 4 56 0
Detroit Lions 17 Richard Rodgers 1 1 14 0
Totals 37 26 294 2

Cook’s 85-yard performance against Chicago in 2016 was an outlier in a two-year stretch that saw a Packer tight end eclipse 39 yards just twice against divisional opponents. Not surprisingly, the Packers won both of those games as the tight end receiving production contributed to nearly 30% of the team’s passing yards. More eye-popping is the lack of touchdowns scored against NFC North foes, as Rodgers’ 2015 total of three scores was one more than the Packers totaled as a unit over the next two years.

It should be taken into account that the Vikings’ defense ranked second in DVOA against tight ends as a unit last season and the Bears were just outside the top 10. The injury to Aaron Rodgers also certainly impacted the passing offense drastically in 2017. But the gradual drop off has been a bit alarming, especially since the tight end is routinely referred to as a young quarterback’s best friend and the Packers failed to incorporate the position into their gameplan with Brett Hundley running the show. Despite having an all-pro quarterback, the Green Bay offense has sputtered at times without a tight end to employ as a complement or decoy to its other receiving threats.

Graham should immediately address this decline in Green Bay after three seasons in which Seattle struggled to best employ the pass-catcher. While it’s been suggested before that the Packers’ passing game was at its best under Rodgers when Jermichael Finley was a staple of the offense, the same holds true against divisional opponents. Finley was a terror against the NFC North, accumulating 283 yards or more versus the division in three of his six seasons with the team, single-handedly rivaling the team’s unit totals the past two seasons. One of those seasons was 2011 when Finley reach the end zone a staggering six times. The Packers were 15-1 during that campaign and 6-0 against their divisional opponents.

The Packers don’t necessarily need Graham to be Finley in divisional games, but coming even remotely close to that production would significantly aid the offense. As a relative non-factor as a blocker, Graham should be expected to line up in a variety of formations to utilize his receiving skillset, including the slot. The increased opportunities should help the Packers’ tight end receiving totals climb back toward the 2016 marks, if not exceed them. Lewis and Kendricks should fulfill roles closer to the line of scrimmage with Lewis additionally helping the team’s red zone efficiency.

But the key word is “should,” as the Packers have signed two tight ends over each of the past two offseasons. Anticipating a much better result as a whole this time around, the Packers should receive a boost against their divisional rivals as well.