GREEN BAY — As Matt LaFleur sat in a downtown Indianapolis eatery during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February and described his ideal tight end, he might as well have just called the guy by name.
“I think that’s an extremely important position for an offense because you can really create some advantages on offense if you get an athletic guy matched up on a safety or a linebacker down the field,” the Green Bay Packers first-year head coach explained.
But before anyone could fall under the misapprehension that LaFleur wants just a pass-catcher who looks like a basketball player, he quickly added another quality his offense requires of its tight end: Terrific blocking skills.
“That’s definitely something we look for and we’re going to demand from that position, no doubt about it,” LaFleur continued. “But I think that’s the beauty of coaching. You find out what your guys can do well and you try to put them in position to have success. That’s what our job is to do.”
Or, you can just go get a guy who can do it all like Hockenson, the Iowa redshirt sophomore who’s widely regarded as the best all-around tight end in the 2019 NFL Draft and someone the Packers well could take with the No. 12 overall pick on Thursday night.
“I think being a versatile tight end is something special, especially now,” Hockenson said when interviewed at the scouting combine. “Being able to flex out, being able to be in a three-point (stance), being able to do all of it is something I pride myself on being able to do, and something I want to continue to do, and continue to try to get better at. I feel like my best football is yet to come.”
Would second-year general manage Brian Gutekunst make a first-round investment in an offensive skill position player? It hasn’t happened very often in the last two decades under Ron Wolf, Mike Sherman or Ted Thompson.
Not including Thompson’s selection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the 24th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Packers haven’t taken an offensive skill-position player in the first round since Sherman took Florida State wide receiver Javon Walker at No. 20 overall in 2002. Wolf took Miami (Fla.) tight end Bubba Franks at No. 14 overall in 2000.
The Franks pick ended another long stretch of the Packers investing first-round picks in non-offensive skill position players. The most recent ones before that had been South Carolina wide receiver Sterling Sharpe at No. 7 overall in 1988 and Auburn running back Brent Fullwood at No. 4 in 1987 – both taken by vice president of football operations Tom Braatz.
But with a new offensive-minded head coach, a new playbook and scheme, and Rodgers set to turn 36 in December – not to mention an additional first-round pick (No. 30 overall) to work with – the time might be right to spend such a pick on an offensive playmaker.
The Packers also have had success in recent years with Iowa players, from right tackle Bryan Bulaga (first round, 2010) to defensive lineman Mike Daniels (fourth round, 2012) and safety Micah Hyde (fifth round, 2013). They also drafted former Hawkeyes cornerback Josh Jackson in the second round last year.
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“I teased Ted one time about how many of our guys he’d taken,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They just have had a good feel not only for our guys but the draft (as a whole). It’s easy to talk about good guys – good players that are good guys. And I think over the years our best players have been our best guys.”
The 6-foot-4, 251-pound Hockenson, 21, redshirted his first year at Iowa before before catching 73 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns over the past two seasons. His Iowa teammate, Noah Fant, is widely considered the second-best tight end prospect in this draft, although he is more of a pass-catching tight end of the order of the Packers’ Jimmy Graham than a do-it-all type.
“I really pride myself on being a complete tight end – being able to block, being able to split out and do different things,” Hockenson said. “To say a weakness, I don’t like that word. I like to think of things as you adapt, you get better at, you learn from. To say a weakness, I don’t like that.
“The NFL is a completely different level. I understand that. You can’t compare college to the NFL. You have to work at every single part of your game. You know, there’s a 10-year veteran on the other side of the line. You have to think quicker than him, you have to think faster than him, you have to be able to read the defense faster than he can read the offense. You have to be able to do so many things in the NFL, mentally and physically, obviously.”
It seems unlikely that Hockenson will still be on the board at No. 30, but with other needs on the roster, the Packers might decide that taking a tight end that high is an unnecessary risk.
Since 1995, only five tight ends have been drafted as high as No. 12: Penn State’s Kyle Brady by the New York Jets in 1995 (ninth); Ohio State’s Rickey Dudley by the Oakland Raiders in 1996 (ninth); Miami’s Kellen Winslow II by the Cleveland Browns in 2004 (sixth); Maryland’s Vernon Davis by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006 (sixth) and North Carolina’s Eric Ebron by the Detroit Lions in 2014 (10th).
In the past 10 drafts, the first tight end was taken with the 25th pick in 2018, 19th pick in 2017, 35th pick in 2016, 55th pick in 2015, 10th pick in 2014, 21st pick in 2013, 34th pick in 2012, 43rd pick in 2011, 21st pick in 2010, and 20th pick in 2009.
This year’s tight end class is deep, too, so the Packers could see better value later in the draft and target Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., San Diego State’s Kahale Warring, Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger or San Jose State’s Josh Oliver.
For now, the Packers have the 32-year-old Graham, whom they paid a $5 million roster bonus to bring him back for the second year of his three-year, $30 million contract; soon-to-be 35-year-old Marcedes Lewis, who returned for another season on a one-year deal after signing with the team last offseason; and 24-year-old Robert Tonyan, who flashed as a first-year player in limited snaps last season.
While Gutekunst will make the final call on picks, he has said on multiple occasions that he’ll listen to LaFleur’s input, and if his coach needs an all-around tight end, that will at least be a consideration.
“Obviously he’s going to have a lot of input because he’s coaching the football team,” Gutekunst said. “At the end of the day, that’s my responsibility. But we’ll be in constant communication about how we’re building this thing together. It has to be that way, or it won’t have a chance to be successful.”