NFL Free Agency: Why the Packers Invested Heavily at Tight End

The Packers inked both Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks this offseason, doubling down on tight end upgrades.

Two heads are better than one, they say. It takes two to tango, according to them. Two is company, three is a crowd, despite what a certain 1970’s to 80’s sitcom might lead you to believe.

In spite of these encouraging aphorisms, it’s still surprising that the Green Bay Packers -- notoriously stingy in the free agent market -- elected to sign not one, but two tight ends this offseason in Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks.

Sure, the threadbare tight end group of the Packers had lost last year’s leading receiver Jared Cook to free agency, which left just plodding one-time Hail Mary hero Richard Rodgers at the top of the heap. But why on earth was the tight end position Green Bay’s target, and what do they plan to do by investing in this area of the roster in 2017?

More Money, More Problems

As we mentioned before, these acquisitions were partially necessitated by the departure of Cook, who signed with the Oakland Raiders this past week. His jumping ship left Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the lurch for a seam-busting defensive mismatch at tight end for 2017.

Cook may have been inconsistent (58.8 percent catch rate) and perpetually banged-up (in on 30 percent of Green Bay’s offensive snaps, per, but he was a compelling threat when he was on the field.

Cue the Black Unicorn.

Former Chicago Bears and New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett was the big-ticket name for the Pack here. Over the past few seasons, he's been a lethal red-zone target, but what can he bring to the Packers?

We can look at Bennett’s impact through the lens of Net Expected Points (NEP), a numberFire metric that describes value on the field.

For reference, NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The graph below shows Bennett’s Reception NEP per target over the past five years, compared to his teams’ averages for wide receivers and tight ends. How has he been used in the league?

Bennett has never been a big-time seam-buster, instead thriving over the last five years on a 68.39 percent catch rate and 78.93 percent Reception Success Rate -- the percent of plays creating positive NEP. This year, however, his Reception NEP per target was higher than the league average and in-line with the team’s, though his Success Rate was a full seven percentage points off.

This speaks to his potential to be used in lower-percentage plays with high value upside (read: as a downfield target).

If nothing else, Bennett’s trend line shows that as his teams’ value production increased, so did his own. Bennett may be nothing more than a reliable in-line blocker and a big-time red zone target, but this reliability is an underrated value to the Packers, considering Cook’s contributions in 2016, shown by the chart below.

What we can glean from this chart is that despite Cook’s team situation improving on average over the last five years, his production has severely declined. Cook was provided with a ton of golden opportunities working in the Packers offense and failed to take advantage of them.

For fantasy purposes, Bennett should factor in for touchdowns weekly (he had 7 on 73 targets in 2016) and the 77 targets that Packers starting tight ends earned last year should be considered his floor for work.

Make a Stack

If Bennett was the big-time acquisition, Lance Kendricks was the subtle afterthought that had many in Packer Nation wondering, “But what about a defensive back?”

The former Ram does hold some intrigue as a strong blocker and backup with more receiving chops than the plodding Richard Rodgers, who Kendricks’ entrance unseats. Heroic Hail Marys aside, Rodgers has been well below replacement-level as a receiver since entering the league in 2014.

The chart below depicts the difference between Rodgers’ and Kendricks’ production in relation to their teams over the last three years.

Rodgers has floated significantly below the team average for every year his career, producing at best just 88 percent of the per-target value that the average wide receiver or tight end on the Packers has in any given year. For Kendricks, that’s his lowest percent of the team value over these past three years.

That’s the reason these contextual comparisons are so important: abhorrent quarterbacking situations might have us believe Kendricks is terrible, worse than even the stone-handed Rodgers. When we look at how the player fits into the team, though, we can see whether they’ve thrived in spite of circumstances (Kendricks), lived or died with the team (Bennett), been consistently lackluster (Rodgers), or flopped in response to positive situational gains (Cook).

In short, Bennett and Kendricks are upgrades for a Packers tight end position that needed solid, reliable receivers. They are by no means game-busters on their own, but will fit into Green Bay and be strong contributors.

Can’t Buy Me Love

On the surface, we can assume that signing Bennett and Kendricks was just a concerted push by the Packers to get more reliable receiving threats underneath and in the red zone. When considering unusual moves like this, however, we need to not only look at the signings themselves -- we need to consider the transactions that were not made.

The Packers allowed offensive guard T.J. Lang to walk in free agency, and the same with backup center J.C. Tretter. These two were superb pass-blockers that will be missed in Green Bay’s line protection schemes. By adding more emphasis on the tight end position, this allows the Packers to get additional blockers on the field more often and diminish some of the loss of their big dancing bears upfront.

The added benefit of these blockers, however, is that they can catch the ball underneath very well -- something Randall Cobb has slipped on lately. Cobb’s 2016 season proved to be a career low, and Bennett and Kendricks may have been the best ways to take some pressure off Cobb as a high-volume underneath target.

It’s entirely possible that the Packers’ head-scratching double-down on the tight end position was a stroke of genius, as they got two undervalued veterans that help flesh out both phases of their passing game plan.

They say one in the hand is worth two in the bush, and while they’re marginal upgrades, the Packers’ signings of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks are upgrades indeed.