GREEN BAY — Had the signing of Martellus Bennett worked out the way the Green Bay Packers envisioned — instead of the enigmatic veteran conjuring up a suspicious shoulder injury shortly after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone — then perhaps the Packers wouldn’t have any concerns at the tight end position entering 2018.
Maybe they’d take a tight end somewhere in the middle rounds of next month’s NFL draft. Maybe they’d re-sign underappreciated Richard Rodgers, who’s set to hit unrestricted free agency next week, to a modest deal.
Beyond that, though, they would’ve had Bennett and ex-University of Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks on the depth chart, and the position wouldn’t have been a particularly pressing need. Bennett would have been entering the second year of his three-year, $21 million deal, and Kendricks entering the second year of a two-year, $4 million deal.
Instead, Bennett’s time in Green Bay lasted all of seven games before the Packers released him with a “failure to disclose” injury designation; Kendricks never got into a rhythm as his opportunity for more playing time after Bennett’s abrupt departure coincided with backup Brett Hundley having to start at quarterback; Rodgers, with the team facing other needs and with just $15.4 million in salary-cap space, could end up elsewhere; and the only other tight end of note on the roster is undrafted free agent Emanuel Byrd, who played in one game after being promoted from the practice squad.
Thus, the Packers now are in the market for tight end help again, a year after losing veteran Jared Cook when negotiations broke down after he gave the Packers an athletic, steady presence and connected with Rodgers, who wanted him to return after a one-year audition.
“You never feel like you’re OK anywhere, especially in this game with injuries and stuff like that,” first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst said at the annual NFL scouting combine last week in Indianapolis. “We have work to do, throughout (the roster). I wouldn’t categorize it like I feel OK (at tight end). I don’t know if you ever feel like you’re OK.”
The Bennett mistake not only led to his acrimonious departure — president Mark Murphy said in a chat on the club website last week that the team will appeal an arbitrator’s ruling that Bennett could keep his $6.3 million signing bonus — but it compounded the loss of Cook, who ended up in Oakland.
Gutekunst said at the combine that losing the grievance would not “change the course of what we were going to try and do” and that it “won’t affect how we’re going to go about our business moving forward,” although the Packers could use the extra cap room winning the grievance would have given them
Bennett, meanwhile, was released by the New England Patriots on Wednesday, as they opted not to pay him a $2 million roster bonus that had been in his deal with the Packers — a contract the Patriots inherited when they claimed their prodigal tight end on waivers.
“I thought he quit on us,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said after Bennett’s release. “He quit on us. He let us down — as a teammate. For a guy that came in, of his caliber, his leadership quote-unquote, I expected more from him. I held him to a higher standard, me personally.”
Coach Mike McCarthy has long believed his offense functions best when he has a big, athletic tight end in his arsenal, as he frequently says the quickest way to the end zone is “through the middle of the field.”
Kendricks could still provide that. He ended up catching only 18 passes for 203 yards and one touchdown last season, but he saw limited action in the season’s first six games, with Bennett eating up most of the snaps at tight end. Only after Aaron Rodgers went down and Bennett departed did Kendricks see extended playing time, but Hundley’s inconsistent play made it hard to evaluate how effective Kendricks truly could have been.
He’s probably worth keeping around for a second year to see what he can do with a two-time NFL MVP throwing him the football.
Even so, the Packers will need more options at tight end — whether that’s re-signing Richard Rodgers, or scanning a free-agent list that includes Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert and Philadelphia’s Trey Burton. The Seahawks reportedly don’t intend to re-sign Graham, who figures to draw significant interest — including from his former team, the New Orleans Saints — after catching 57 passes for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns and earning his fifth Pro Bowl nod last season at age 31.
“I like our talent on the offense,” Gutekunst said at the combine. “It’s like anything, if you significantly allocate a portion, whether it’s cap or draft picks, whatever, to one side (like the defense), you always worry about that. But when you have a franchise quarterback, he seems to make those guys around him a little bit better.”