Green Bay Packers: It’s time to finally draft a tight end

IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 22: Tight ends Noah Fant #87 and T.J. Hockenson #38 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a touchdown during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers on September 22, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 22: Tight ends Noah Fant #87 and T.J. Hockenson #38 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a touchdown during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers on September 22, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images) /

The Green Bay Packers have relied on free agency to address the tight end position for three consecutive seasons. It’s time to finally draft one.

Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson wasn’t known for spending in free agency, but when he did, it was usually at a position of need. That’s why Thompson sought out tight end Jared Cook in 2016 and Martellus Bennett in 2017, in an effort to shore up Green Bay’s need at the position.

That effort carried over with current general manager Brian Gutekunst, when Jimmy Graham was signed to a three-year deal in 2018. That experiment didn’t turn out as well as initially planned, though, as there’s already rumors that Graham’s time in Green Bay could be over after just one season. Marcedes Lewis was also signed that offseason, but finished the 2018 season with just three catches for 39 yards.

It could be argued that Cook’s time with the Packers was productive — although injury-plagued (only 10 games played) — especially when factoring in his clutchness. Cook caught the crucial pass from Aaron Rodgers with three seconds remaining against the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 Divisional Playoffs on third-and-20 to set up the winning field goal.

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But even Cook’s efforts weren’t convincing enough for the Packers to re-sign him after the 2016 season. Green Bay elected to sign Lance Kendricks and Bennett in the 2017 offseason. Bennett was released after just seven games with the team, with a ‘failure to disclose a medical condition’ designation, and Kendricks has had minimal impact during his time with the Packers.

It’s safe to say after three consecutive years of failed attempts at addressing the position, it’s finally time for the Packers to draft a tight end. Green Bay has gone far too long without a reliable, all-around player at the position. Jermichael Finley may have been the last notable player who could do it all, and even he had his issues with blocking.

The Packers haven’t been known for drafting tight ends recently, though. Since drafting Finley in the third round in 2008, Green Bay has only drafted five tight ends since, and hasn’t drafted a tight end since 2015.

Here are the names of those drafted after Finley: Andrew Quarless, 2010 fifth round; DJ Williams, 2011 fifth round; Ryan Taylor, 2011 seventh round; Richard Rodgers, 2014 third round; Kennard Backman, 2015 sixth round. It may be time to not only draft a tight end, but draft one early.

Luckily for Green Bay, the 2019 NFL Draft is littered with top-tier tight end prospects. Here’s an early look at how the NFL Draft’s top tight end prospects figure to shake out and where the Packers might be able to get them:

Top 50 selection

T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
Noah Fant, Iowa
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama

Top 100 selection

Caleb Wilson, UCLA
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Kaden Smith, Stanford

Middle to late-round selection

C.J. Conrad, Kentucky
Alize Mack, Notre Dame
Zach Gentry, Michigan
Tommy Sweeney, Boston College
Kendall Blanton, Missouri

The Packers have four selections in the top 76 (12th, 30th, 44th, and 76th overall picks) and two more selections shortly after at 108 and 112. Drafting a tight end in the top 100 seems likely, if not a foregone conclusion, especially if Graham is released before March 15 (the day he’s due a $5.3 roster bonus).

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That means Packers fans better get used to seeing some of the names above. The three most intriguing prospects obviously include T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant and Irv Smith Jr. Hockenson was college football’s Mackey Award winner in 2018, racking up 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns. More impressively, though, was his ability in the running game.

Hockenson (6-4, 250 pounds) is known for his stellar blocking ability, and was even called “one of the best blocking tight ends I’ve ever evaluated” by NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. Hockenson is rated as Jeremiah’s 12th overall prospect for the 2019 draft and appears to be the most complete tight end in this year’s class. Perhaps coincidentally, the Packers have the 12th overall pick.

Then there’s Hockenson’s former teammate, Noah Fant, who’s been called a bigger Evan Engram by some. Fant (6-5, 241 pounds) has the ability to stretch the field with his rare size and speed, which makes it difficult for linebackers to keep up with him and even harder for defensive backs to overpower him. He’s the type of mismatch weapon that many offensive coaches seek in today’s NFL. Fant finished 2018 with 39 receptions for 519 yards and seven touchdowns.

That leaves us with the final (perceived) first round talent in Irv Smith Jr., who figures to be just the latest Alabama receiving product to be drafted highly. Smith Jr. (6-4, 245) is considered to be the most athletic among this year’s tight ends, even if not the most polished. Still, he’s being touted by some as the best tight end in this year’s class. He finished 2018 with 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.

If the Packers elect to wait out the draft a bit longer, Caleb Wilson, Jace Sternberger, and Kaden Smith offer excellent ‘consolation’ prizes in the second and third rounds. Wilson racked up nearly 1,000 yards in just 11 games in 2018. Sternberger was named a consensus All-American after a stellar season. And Smith was one of three Mackey Award finalists.

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If Green Bay decides not to draft a tight end, it could mean dire consequences. Heading into the 2019 offseason, veteran tight ends Lewis and Kendricks are scheduled to become free agents. Coupled with the possibility of releasing Graham, that leaves Robert Tonyan, a rookie undrafted free agent in 2018, as the lone player at the position.

Drafting a tight end not only seems logical, but inevitable for the Packers at some point in the 2019 NFL Draft. But based on their draft history, nothing can be concluded just yet.