How the Packers Could Use Multiple Tight Ends in 2017
Mike McCarthy loves his tight ends, but he doesn’t use them together very often.
According to data from Sharp Football Stats, the Packers utilized a two tight end formation on just 9.6% of their offensive plays last year, significantly below the league-wide average of 25.4%.
According to the same data, the league’s favorite two tight end personnel grouping also featured a running back and two wide receivers, a grouping the Packers used on just 87 plays all of last season. That’s roughly six times per game.
Why didn’t the Packers use two tight end formations in 2016?
It’s probable that the Packers didn’t use two tight ends together more often because the skill sets of Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers didn’t complement each other very well. Cook and Rodgers are both poor blockers and Rodgers isn't enough of a receiving threat to justify taking a wide receiver off the field while Cook was already out there.
It’s also possible the Packers realized something else about Richard Rodgers in 2016: he just may not be very good. If there was ever a moment for him to shine, it was last season. The Packers were in desperate need of an offensive spark during their midseason swoon and Mike McCarthy desperately tried to make Rodgers be that spark.
After the Packers lost in frustrating fashion to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8, Rodgers briefly became something of a focal point of the offense. From Weeks 9 through 11, Rodgers was targeted with 21 passes. He caught just 14 for 119 yards and no touchdowns. He was never targeted with more than two passes in a game for the remainder of the regular season.
Bennett and Kendricks change the game
But given the free agent signings of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, it seems likely the Packers will use two tight ends more than last year. Both are thought to be better blockers than Cook and Rodgers, and their size and speed differences mean that they could be utilized together more often.
But that's the easy conclusion. What’s harder is exactly how they’ll be deployed.
Will they be used as giant wide receivers? Will Bennett or Kendricks or both split out into the slot like Jared Cook occasionally did last season? How often will they be In line as blockers? Will Kendricks function as an H-back? Do they go I-formation with a tight end on either end of the offensive line and try to bludgeon people to death?
The possibilities are nearly as numerous as they are tantalizing, and one particular play from last season provides a glimpse of just how dangerous a combination they could be.
Jordy Nelson badly injured his ribs during the Packers’ Wild Card playoff game with the New York Giants and was thus unavailable for the Packers’ next playoff matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. As a result, the Packers rolled out a truly wacky formation early in the first quarter.
Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers, and Jared Cook all split wide to the left with Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison to the right. After a hard count drew a Dallas defender offside, Aaron Rodgers found Richard Rodgers (of all people) sprinting past Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee for a touchdown.
It was a matchup precipitated by the two tight end personnel grouping. Dallas could have little expected something resembling a five wide receiver set when they trotted two tight ends onto the field, and as a result they countered with a linebacker heavy defensive group. Lo and behold, the Packers were thinking pass all along and found themselves picking up a touchdown on a free play.
If that’s the sort of thing the Packers could produce in a key situation with tight ends like Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers, imagine the possibilities with an upgraded tight end group in 2017.