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Green Bay says hello to the Tight End
Take it from Peyton Manning, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, the best ever. A special relationship with a tight end can lead to greatness. The Green Bay Packers hope this is the case for Jordan Love.
If Luke Musgrave doesn’t suffer a knee injury in the final minute of Oregon State’s second game of the 2022 season, you might’ve seen him right there in Kansas City for the draft as a top 15 pick. Blinding suit and all. Because last fall started with a bang. Musgrave burnt Boise State and Fresno State for 169 yards on 11 receptions with a touchdown.
Then, he ran a 4.56.
He’s a legitimate 6 foot 6, 253 pounds. Up close, Oregon State tight ends coach Brian Wozniak — who played the position himself at Wisconsin in college — saw how hard Musgrave worked the prior offseason. What people forget, he adds, is Musgrave also forced two DPI’s and had two other receptions nullified those first two games.
“The guy,” Wozniak says, “was ready to take the roof off of the tight end position in the country. And it got cut short.”
A few moments later, he repeats this line.
“We thought he would’ve taken the roof off the season.”
The axiom is as true now as it was when the position was born in 1961. Our great, great grandkids will say the same thing when pro football heads to Mars. A good tight end is a quarterback’s best friend is more truth, than cliché. A commandment the Green Bay Packers took to heart in their first draft post-Aaron Rodgers.
At 42nd overall, they selected Musgrave. At 78th overall, they took South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft.
Ahead of the draft, Brian Gutekunst was asked if he was nervous about all the youth around his new quarterback: Jordan Love. He cited the positivity in youth and then drafted like a general manager fully aware that a quarterback taking over one of the most storied sports franchises needed a very specific sonar on third and 8.
All quarterbacks who’ve thrown to the best tight ends ever will tell you this is a smart strategy.
Drew Bledsoe threw to Ben Coates 148 times through his second season, 1994, as the Patriots’ quarterback. His obsession with Coates reached the point of comedy. During one practice, head coach Bill Parcells instructed Bledsoe to run a red zone play called “84 Red.” Parcells then paused. Cut himself short. Admitted it doesn’t matter what play he calls because Bledsoe would simply sling it to Coates anyway. (“Well, yeah,” Bledsoe told him. “He always catches it and we always score.”) As a rookie starter, in 2011, Cam Newton couldn’t verbalize the wordy play calls of OC Rob Chudzinski. He’d trip over every second or third word. Thus, this scene was also comical. All players in that Carolina Panthers huddle would listen to Newton and next, in unison, turn toward Greg Olsen to fill in the cracks. Head spinning, Newton would then throw to his tight end all game. Newton targeted Olsen 100+ times in five straight seasons.
After torching the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 defense so much on the scout team in 1990, Shannon Sharpe finally got his shot with John Elway and the future Hall of Fame QB went out of his way to help. It would’ve been easy for Elway to tell this ultra-, ultra-raw talent from Savannah State to stick his nose in a damn playbook but — sensing potential greatness — Elway got into the practice habit of telling Sharpe which route to run whenever he motioned behind him… with one gentle request after practice. Elway had the team’s tight ends coach, Les Steckel, tell Sharpe to quit pounding double cheeseburgers, fries, and chocolate malts from Wendy’s.
Peyton Manning knew the Indianapolis Colts’ offense discovered another gear with Dallas Clark.
Drew Brees had Jimmy Graham. Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski.
Aaron Rodgers had… had… well, at one point, the best tight end in football. Long before the quarterback called him “irrelevant,” that’s exactly how Rodgers labeled Jermichael Finley early in his career. Finley was only 26 years old when a bruised spinal cord ended his career. That injury, six games into the 2013 season, gets lost in time as one of the great what-if’s in Packers history. If Finley stays healthy, does Rodgers leave Green Bay with only one ring? Doubt it.
The next decade, Green Bay failed to incorporate the tight end position into the offense.
Part of that’s on management. Part of that’s on the quarterback.
Now, a new era begins. Since Jordan Love was selected 26th overall three years ago, the Packers have methodically planted the seeds of one organic offense to grow beneath the audible-centric, signal-reliant Rodgers Offense. This was the genius all along. Matt LaFleur could win in the now while also preparing for the future… one baby step at a time. The sound logic of April 23, 2020 crystallizes with each transaction since. Last year, Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs were chosen at wide receiver. Last month, fat was shaved from the roster. Select older players needed to go. And last weekend, might’ve supplied the biggest hint yet at what LaFleur’s offense, in full, will resemble.
A creature mostly extinct in Wisconsin — the athletic, playmaking, red-blooded American tight end — makes its return. This is an offense full of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds at the skill positions. That can be perceived as scary or that can be a golden opportunity to create something new.
The blank slate is a beautiful thing.
All the tight ends I hung out with for “The Blood and Guts” certainly approve. (No, no. We’d never use this as an opportunity to hyperlink to the book in a zillion years.)
On second thought, Musgrave’s suit probably wouldn’t have been that fluorescent in the green room. If he attended at all. When the Packers reached out to Wozniak to see how they can help him off the field, the coach told them he won’t need much. A good fishing hole, a golf course, that’s it. All he wants to do is catch touchdowns and reel in monsters, which means he’ll probably fit in just fine.
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Wozniak acknowledges “rose-colored glasses” as the tight end’s coach, but he doesn’t think there would’ve even been a debate at the top of the draft if Musgrave stayed healthy. He informed teams that Musgrave’s numbers should’ve also been better in 2021 than 22 receptions for 304 yards because they actually did call his number, often, and something always seemed to go wrong. Protection issues, the QB throwing elsewhere, etc.
This is the quintessential Gutekunst draft pick. A player with rare physical traits Green Bay plans to mold.
“He’s so long,” Wozniak says. “He’s so deceptive even in the short area. He gets in and out of stuff so quick. The explosion he has, it’ll get him off press coverage. It’ll get him off free-access man. Then, you bring it to the run game. This guy’s a ‘pass-catching tight end.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not.’ He’s so damn explosive, he can get on these defenders so quick. He does a great job of not only covering them up, but moving them. That’s the big thing. His explosion is exceptional.”
Luke’s father played college football. His mother was on the U.S. developmental ski team in the ‘80s. The reason for Luke’s swivel hips? He’s been skiing since age 4 and has won events in both the U.S. and Europe. Wozniak notes that Musgrave grew five inches between his sophomore and junior year of high school, “and kept growing.” Even at his height, he ran 11.2 in the 100 meters. (“Just freakish,” he adds.)
The Packers actually did try this before at tight end with a proven all-timer, a five-time Pro Bowler. By 2018, age and injuries were catching up to Graham. He wasn’t the same player. But whereas Brees was more apt to give him a shot in traffic over the middle, Graham realized quickly that wasn’t Rodgers’ style in Green Bay.
“Obviously Aaron, the way this man throws the ball, it’s unbelievable,” Graham said. “The greatest thrower to ever live. It’s mind-boggling. It’s out of control. But Aaron throws to the outsides a lot because he’s mitigating the risk of picks. Very smart. If you look at it, it’s genius. Especially when you have a No. 1 out there like Davante Adams catching that thing.”
Genius to the point of possessing the second-best, regular-season passer rating in NFL history. But in the playoffs — when those windows tighten — a quarterback must take more chances. His 2010 run was special. What Rodgers did to the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round should’ve been a felony. He wasn’t shy in his lone Super Bowl win, either. But through the duration of his 15-year run as the starter, Rodgers’ play style was not conducive to January success. This is when defensive coordinators bust out their best stuff, when they’re able to confuse you and make you hesitate for a split-second… all it takes for the pass rush to get home.
It pays to have the sort of body type — a Tight End Body — over the middle of the field. Rodgers was more apt to utilize his tight end as a last-reserve fourth receiving option.
The sight of a 6-foot-6 specimen flashing between the hashes gives any quarterback that mental green light to rip it without hesitation. Because they’re so big. Because the best have a freaky catch radius. Graham and Brees used to have a saying, “TBD.” Short for, “Throw me the damn ball.” Even as the NFL’s most accurate passer at his peak, Brees knew he needed to give Graham a chance to make the contested catch. Graham is positive that if he stayed with Brees, the Saints absolutely would’ve won another Super Bowl. Both guard Jahri Evans and ex-Saints DC Gregg Williams emphatically stated that Graham would’ve been the consensus best tight end of all-time if New Orleans didn’t trade him to Seattle. The chemistry with Graham was this strong.
Instead? Gronkowski owns that title, and “Gronk” was OK with the rest of world thinking he was a partying Neanderthal. First of all, the ex-Patriot insisted all of that partying helped his game. He’d gyrate for five straight hours over vodka waters. In the morning (hangover and all), he’d pop in the INSANITY DVD for a workout.
And all along, Gronk stayed on Tom Brady’s intellectual level by constantly drilling routes after practice.
“There’s a lot of people out there that come up with a great invention and say, ‘Why isn’t anybody praising me for all the work I did to create this great invention?’” Gronkowski said in the book. “No, you get the credit when the credit’s due. When you bring out the final project. In order to get what you want, you’ve got to work for it. I knew I had to put the work in day in and day out on the field with Tom.
“I only partied and had fun when I knew I took care of my business. Let me get everything done. Let me make sure I’m in shape and I worked out, I studied up so I can go out.”
The greatest ever were not obvious stars in-waiting. Graham was a 95th overall pick with all of 17 college receptions to his name. He nearly took an overseas pro basketball offer the year before. Gronkowski went 42nd with back issues. George Kittle went 146th. Travis Kelce, 63rd. There’s no telling who in this rich class of tight ends has the best chance at being the next matchup from hell — perhaps Buffalo’s Dalton Kincaid or Detroit’s Sam LaPorta or Las Vegas’ Michael Mayer takes the torch — but the Packers wisely purchased two lottery tickets. Kraft is an FCS Jackrabbit but, as our Bob McGinn learned, he actually turned down a lucrative NIL deal at Alabama in 2022. One scout compared him to Gronkowski in “the way he’s built and the way he moves,” adding that he’s an “excellent receiver at all levels” who ran routes deep. He liked him as much as Mayer.
One scout said Musgrave is “like watching a car wreck.” Another predicted a team would roll the dice in the 20s on him because he was a better “height-weight-speed” prototype than Kincaid.
The Beavers study the San Francisco 49ers offense a lot. Musgrave loved zeroing in on Kittle because the complete tight end was liable to burn a defense for 60 yards any moment.
“He wants to be that weapon,” Wozniak says. “There’s similarities in their movement.”
Love will be looking for him. Thinking back, Bledsoe said he has no problem referring to Coates as his personal “security blanket.” Having such a large target geographically close to him in a sea of 22 bodies was crucial. These are the easy throws for a young QB. Especially when that tight end — like Coates — is so “uncoverable” on third down. Wozniak is confident Musgrave can have a similar impact on Love because of his absurd catch radius, size and athleticism.
Football for the QB1 in Green Bay once again matters in May. We can laugh off practice this time of year, but it’s critical. It’s what jumpstarted the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl run last season — Patrick Mahomes brought his new weapons down to Texas. Upon finally taking over, Jordan Love must be eager to build his own special relationship with new teammates. The Packers drafted three more wide receivers, too: Jayden Reed (Michigan State), Dontayvion Wicks (Virginia) and Grant Dubose (Charlotte).
This is exactly when the Indianapolis Colts’ offense, under Manning, found its edge.
An the tight end was the difference.
While Manning was already revolutionizing the position by the time GM Bill Polian selected Clark 24th overall, something was missing. The Colts couldn’t get past New England. Clark was that final piece. Off the field, QB and TE were tight. Their pranks could be ruthless. Whenever a rookie started getting cocky, they’d fill a 50-gallon garbage can halfway with water and lean it against the outside of the door. Timing was key. They’d usually wait until the last night of training camp, when that player inside had his luggage near the door.
Clark would knock, speed off and the room flooded with water.
Inside the weight room, Manning watched in awe. Clark earned the nickname “The Natural” back at Iowa and The Sheriff saw why during box jumps. The Colts’ strength staff couldn’t stack enough boxes on top of each other.
And it was the practice field where these two turned the Colts into a juggernaut capable of winning in the playoffs. They’d treat a humdrum throwing session in May with the intensity of a January playoff game in Foxborough. If anything wasn’t right — no matter how minuscule — they’d run that exact same route again. And again. And again. As if they were Team USA preparing for the Soviets. That seam, that slant, that comeback route needed to be perfected to the inch. Clark didn’t care that it meant repeatedly sprinting at full speed. The walk-on who woke up at 6 a.m. to mow the athletic fields, deliver the campus newspaper and, why not, even serve as a test dummy for psychology and dentistry students to make a few extra bucks never complained. Never sighed. If Manning wasn’t satisfied, he wasn’t satisfied.
They’d run the same route 25 times before going to the next.
When we chatted for “Blood and Guts,” Manning pinpointed those throwing sessions as a breakthrough for the Colts offense.
“Dallas was wired the same way,” Manning said. “I’m one of those guys, if I missed a throw, I’d say, ‘Let’s get another one.’ If Dallas dropped a pass or he and I were just off, we’d get another one. The receiver has to run another route. That’s fifteen yards. He was like, ‘Absolutely. Why would we move onto the next one before we have this one right?’ The fact that he loved to work, that’s when I knew he was going to be a part of our offense. He asks questions: ‘What are you looking for on this defense?’ He was a football rat. A junkie. Even when he was a first-round pick with the Colts. It wasn’t like he said, ‘I made it.’ He kept working like he was still a walk-on.”
Both of the Colts’ runs to the Super Bowl were the direct result of those sessions.
In ‘06, Manning threaded a ridiculous needle to Clark on third down to close a playoff win in Baltimore. The timing needed to be perfect. Cornerback Corey Ivy is probably still wondering how this happened. The next week, Clark torched the Patriots. In all, the two connected 21 times for 317 yards through this Super Bowl title run. In ‘09, all of their offseason sessions paid off in the form of a 100-catch, 1,106-yard, 10-touchown career season for Clark. The tight end caught 75.2 percent of his targets. So much of their damage came on a route perfected more times than they could count — a seam route vs. Cover 2. Against those same Ravens, in that same divisional round, off play action, Manning zipped one seam right past the linebacker’s earhole to hit Clark. (Indy won and reached another Super Bowl.)
“I could throw that with my eyes closed,” Manning said. “Because I knew exactly the angle he was going to take. I could tell by the defense when he was going to put his right foot in the ground and stick it and move toward the middle. It’s just all those reps in April and May and June and August all way before the games. When you’re practicing those things in April, the idea is you should be treating it like a game. You should be running at full speed and simulating, ‘OK, this is it. It’s third and 7. We’ve got to win.’ You treat practice like the game so, when you get to the game, it’s ‘Hey, I’ve been here before.’”
Manning reiterated that the mistake offenses make in the playoffs is trying to unleash something new. A new play. A new formation to catch the opponent off-guard. To hell with that. He learned to stick with what works, to stick with what he tirelessly drilled those 90-degree days.
Imagine how demoralizing this is for a proud Baltimore defense.
They practice all week to stop this one play… dial up the right coverage… and remain utterly helpless.
“We call that play, and they have it covered almost perfectly,” Manning said. “The linebacker doesn’t really bite the fake. He’s running with Dallas. But his back is turned to me. Dallas puts his foot in the ground and sticks it to the post. And I put it right past the guy’s ear. You know that’s frustrating for the defense — ‘Wait a minute. We worked all week on stopping that. How did they complete that?’ That’s the reps. You spent all week stopping that. We spent the last six years perfecting that route. So, we’re going to win that battle. I don’t care what defense you play. We know what adjustment it is.”
Clark was the variable keying Manning’s on-the-fly audibles.
If a nickel corner was over the tight end, Manning audibled to a run his side and Clark drove that DB into the turf. If it was a linebacker, a safety? Manning was throwing to the gloveless No. 44 because Clark kills that 1-on-1 matchup. When Clark thought back to those glory days in our chat, he looked like a man about to ball up a fist and break his truck windshield in excitement. Nothing beat that high on third down when Clark knew the ball was heading his way.
Everything was rooted in his relationship with Manning.
So, this is the fun in Wisconsin.
The Packers have a chance to embark on their own journey to reach their own playoff moments
A few days after Gutekunst was asked about the “risk” of losing Rodgers — heh — another gloomy scenario was brought up to head coach Matt LaFleur. The fact that he’s losing so many veterans. Guys like Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. LaFleur would only say nice things about those veterans. True, they might’ve set a standard behind the scenes. But LaFleur must quietly be ecstatic to get his guys capable of running his offense.
Everyone’s bought in now, including the most important employee: the quarterback.
He sees a confident Jordan Love roaming the halls.
Week 1 is still four months away. But these four months can create so much joy in January. If one of those lottery tickets hit, the payoff is massive.
Tight ends save football and teach us so much about life. You can find “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football” everywhere books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thanks, everyone.
Miss any of the draft coverage at Go Long? Bob McGinn’s 39th Annual Draft Series, and more, linked below:
Full scouting reports on Lukas Van Ness, Dalton Kincaid and Deonte Banks. Green Bay rolled the dice on the Iowa edge rusher. Buffalo and New York hope they also found immediate starters.
Scout Extras: Packers go wild for tight ends, Giants steal Jalin Hyatt, Bills add to O-Line. Bob McGinn empties the notebook on these Day 2 prospects. Tucker Kraft, Green Bay's 78th overall pick, drew rave reviews: "He reminded me of Gronkowski. ... He can be the best of the group.”
Scout Extras: Inside Green Bay's gambles. Here's what the personnel men said about Colby Wooden, Sean Clifford and all nine of the Packers' Day 3 draft picks.
The best player in the NFL Draft? It's Bijan Robinson, say NFL scouts. "He’s an absolute freak show.” (Also: Why Devon Witherspoon is their favorite.)
Bob McGinn’s Happy Hour Replay. On Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Bart Starr, all things Packers and NFL Draft.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens give hope to humanity. In the nick of time, too. Baltimore is doing right by its MVP quarterback. Compromise can be a hell of a drug.
The Atlanta Falcons have stepped into the ring. This isn't how teams are supposed to build but the Falcons don't care. With Bijan Robinson, they’ll make their move in the NFC.
Next 'Joe Burrow?' The scouts' take on No. 1 pick Bryce Young. The Carolina Panthers make the Alabama quarterback their top pick.
Brian Gutekunst is the captain now. Uh, "risk?" The risk is convincing yourself an apathetic 39-year-old quarterback finds the fountain of youth.