Why the Packers Might Not Need a Tight End in the Passing Game

With talent at receiver, the Packers don’t need a great tight end to sustain offensive success.

A tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend. We hear it all the time with young quarterbacks in their development and the help a reliable tight end can provide. Tight ends aren’t just exclusive to the young quarterbacks. Many veterans can view the tight end as a valuable weapon too. With athletes such as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham playing the position, it’s not hard to see why teams would like to take advantage of the mismatches those players provide as often as possible. That’s what much of football is about anyway, gaining any type of tactical advantage over an opponent.

For a team that has no problems dominating opposing defenses, the Green Bay Packers have an inconsistent use of their tight ends. It’s not that the Packers don’t use tight ends, but their utilization of the position for an effective offense is interesting to note.

Talent Versus Targets

Since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starting quarterback for the Packers in 2008, Green Bay’s use of the tight end in the passing game has been determined by who that tight end is. This shouldn’t be breaking any new ground in offensive philosophy -- good players should get the ball more while less skilled players should see the ball less -- but the numbers behind Green Bay tight ends could be considered noteworthy.

Below is a chart of the target share for Green Bay tight ends in the passing offense each year since 2008. It notes the amount of passes thrown in total (Rodgers plus others), the amount passes that targeted tight ends, the leading tight end by target and how that player fared by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, in this case Reception NEP per target. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

YearPassesTE TargetsTarget ShareLeaderRNEP/T

There’s some inconsistency over that seven-year sample, but there does appear to be a common theme. For the most part, Packers tight ends see more targets when they’re performing better on a per-play basis, and aren’t thrown at when they’re not. Again, not breaking much new ground. There are two seasons of note, which point to the contrary.

During 2012, tight ends accounted for over 20 percent of the Green Bay targets, while Jermichael Finley put up a Reception NEP per target of just 0.53.

In 2014 both Jace Amaro and Jared Cook averaged 0.53 Reception NEP per target. Try imagining either of those two a major part of the third best passing offense in the league according to Adjusted Passing NEP per play.

It’s hard to blame the Packers too much, since Finley had just come off a season with a Reception NEP per target of 0.87, which was third among tight ends with at least 50 targets in 2011.

The following year, Packers tight ends saw just under 20 percent of the passes, while Andrew Quarless was the leading target-getter with a 0.45 Reception NEP per target. 2013 was the season Rodgers broke his collarbone and played in only nine regular season games.

It’s plausible, then, the trusty combination of Matt Flynn, Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien relied more on tight ends when they were under center. However, that’s not the case.

In games featuring the backup trifecta at quarterback, Green Bay tight ends were targeted on just 15.7 percent of pass attempts. The explanation for this again goes back to Finley. Before suffering a neck injury Finley played in the first six games of the season, accounting for 13.5 percent of Rodgers’ targets alone in that span.

Tight Ends Now

Finley was talented, but his inconsistency was maddening for both the team and fans. As much as his occasional drops were infuriating to many, the Packers failed to find a replacement for him in the offense last season. With the rotation of Quarless, Brandon Bostick and Richard Rodgers, Green Bay tight ends only saw 80 targets last season.

Of course it’s hard to get the ball when Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are seeing more than half the the passes and are doing very good things on those plays. But if the Packers had a Gronk or Graham type at the position, they’d be slightly more inclined to throw the ball that way.

Heading into the 2015 season, the Green Bay depth chart looks mostly the same, with only the departure of Bostick. Quarless remains penciled in as the starter but could find himself suspended to start the season after getting arrested on the Fourth of July for firing a gun in public. Rodgers would then assume the role of starter after seeing just 20 targets and a 0.61 Reception NEP per target during his rookie season.

Rodgers spent most of time time in college as a de facto slot receiver in Cal’s spread offense. He has some ability to catch the ball and a breakout from the second-year player would be the best bet for the offense using a tight end more often. A breakout might be hard because as the tight end depth chart remains mostly the same, so does the one for receivers. Nelson and Cobb will return, as does Davante Adams, whose 66 targets were third on the team in 2014.

Maybe Rodgers becomes that player needed for the Packers, or maybe that player isn’t on the roster. But until the Packers can find a talented enough tight end to complement the rest of the receivers, the Packers aren’t going to force feed the ball when better results can be had elsewhere. As the best passing offense in the league last season according Adjusted Passing NEP per play, there’s certainly no need to do so.