Trimming the Tight Ends
In 2011, the Packers did something relatively unusual: they kept five tight ends on their active roster. Given how often they throw the ball, that's not extremely bizarre, but it was still weird enough to turn my head. The great thing about the decision was that each end on the roster had a very specific skill set that was pretty different from every other end on the roster. The bad thing was that it's going to make deciding who to cut this year even harder, since each of them contributed on the field last year.
I can't see a scenario where the Packers would keep five tight ends again this season, especially with Mike McCarthy hinting that they could consider keeping six wide receivers. With that in mind, if they devote the same number of roster spots to pass catchers this year as they did last year, that will leave four tight end spots available. But who will fill them? Let's find out.
Jermichael Finley - As far as I'm concerned, Finley is the only lock to make the final roster out of their current tight end group. His unique athleticism and proven productivity put him far above any of the others. But Finley is also a bit of an enigma. He's known to run his mouth a little bit too much and he has a penchant for developing untimely stone hands (by my count he had about 37 drops in the Kansas City game last year, but I could be remembering that wrong). But all the negatives come with positives too: he always draws tons of attention from the defense and creates loads of space for other offensive players. He's great around the goal line and has speed that very few ends around the league can match. I'm still waiting for him to have a truly dominant season, and that may be difficult with the amount of talented offensive players the Packers have. In 2010, Finley was on pace for 84 catches and over 1200 yards when he blew out his knee. By those standards, last year was a bit of a disappointment, even though he did post career highs in touchdowns (8) and yards (767). Will this be the year he finally puts it all together? We'll see. Also, a fun fact about Finley: his top two career yardage marks (767 last year, 676 in 2009) are both palindromes. I bet he did that on purpose.
Andrew Quarless - The extremely poor man's Finley, Quarless has been billed as an athletic pass catcher his entire career. He got pressed into duty a little bit more quickly than originally planned when Finley hurt his knee in 2010. To my eyes, he seemed like a bit of an odd man out at the position last year. He didn't block as well as Tom Crabtree or Ryan Taylor and he didn't catch passes as well as Finley or DJ Williams. From that perspective, he'd seem to be squarely on the roster bubble come training camp time. However, Quarless could hypothetically benefit from his own injury in terms of making the roster. He blew out his knee when the Packers played at Detroit last year and recently said he may not be ready for the start of training camp. If that's the case, he could potentially start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, or if he's even luckier, get bumped straight to injured reserve for the season and have another entire year to rehab his knee. If the team thinks highly enough of him, the IR option could be the best fit.
DJ Williams - Williams seems like a slightly smaller version of Andrew Quarless, and his background is somewhat similar. Like Quarless, Williams ranks among the all-time most productive tight ends at his college (Arkansas). He was so good in 2010 that he was recognized with the Mackey Award, which is given to the nation's top collegiate tight end. I'm guessing the reason he wasn't a big-time prospect out of college is his underwhelming physical attributes. He surely won't blow you away with his 40 time or wow you with a big leaping catch. He strikes me as a guy who got by in college on consistency and technique, and if he works hard enough those attributes could translate to the NFL. If memory serves me correctly, he was starting to take some playing time away from Andrew Quarless before Quarless got injured, so that could mean Williams could have the upper hand regardless of how Quarless bounces back from his injury. And though it has no bearing whatsoever on his 2012 football prospects, I think it's worth noting that Williams was recognized with the 2010 Disney Spirit award, which is pretty cool even though it does sound somewhat strange.
Tom Crabtree - If Mike McCarthy loves tattoos, Tom Crabtree has pretty good prospects for making the final roster. Crabtree does have a reputation as a ferocious hitter in the run game, but over the past two seasons he's only caught 10 passes. However, if push comes to shove, I think Crabtree's blocking skills could put him ahead of someone who is more specifically attuned to the passing game. Given the number of talented pass catchers on the roster, someone who can block well might be able to carve out a niche as something special.
Ryan Taylor - I consider Ryan Taylor to be Spencer Havner 2.0. If you'll remember, Havner was as well liked for his abilities as a special teams contributor as for his predisposition to catching only touchdown passes. When you're looking at players near the bottom of the roster, special teams contributions are often the deciding factor, and Taylor can certainly cover kicks with the best of them. He has experience as a college linebacker, and even played all three phases of the game in one contest during his college career. He's also been called the best pure tight end on the roster by Vic Ketchman of Packers.com, which would be awesome if being a pure tight end meant more than just putting an adjective in front of the name of the position he plays. For all the difference it makes to the final roster, you might as well call him the best beige tight end, but I digress. I like Taylor, and if he has a strong camp he could make a claim for Tom Crabtree's job.
Eric Lair - Lair an intriguing, versatile, undrafted tight end (you know you might have a problem when you honestly believe a sixth string tight end is an intriguing prospect). According to a couple scouting websites I looked at researching this post, Lair was actually billed as a fullback during the time leading up to the draft. Knowing that Mike McCarthy likes guys who can do multiple things (see Taylor, Ryan) being able to play multiple positions effectively can't do anything but help Lair. Also, he shows surprising athleticism in his scouting tape from the University of Minnesota, so if he plays well, he could get a long look as a potential practice squad player.
Brandon Bostwick - Even the internet doesn't reveal much about this guy, but from what I've been able to gather he played both receiver and tight end at Newberry College in South Carolina. During a game his junior year he caught 11 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns, so that's pretty special. He also currently wears number 48 for the Packers, and that's literally everything I know about Brandon Bostwick. You're welcome.
Conclusion - As I said in the intro, I think there's only one guy from this group who has a spot locked up on the roster, and that's Jermichael Finley. Beyond that, it seems like there's three pairs of similar players. You've got Quarless and Williams the receivers, Crabtree and Taylor as the blocker/special teamers, and Lair and Bostwick as the extra bodies. If I had to guess right now, I'd say our final tight end group will be Finley, Williams, Crabtree, and Taylor coming out of camp, with Quarless on PUP/IR and one of either Lair or Bostwick on the practice squad, with the edge going to Lair based on his versatility.