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TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW: TIGHT END

By Jerry Gilbert 6-24-05
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One of the mysteries of this off-season is the fact that the Green Bay Packers have done very little to address the position of tight end. As the 2004 season ended, starting tight end Bubba Franks and his back-up David Martin were both free agents. Martin drew no interest around the league and re-signed. Franks would have been a hot commodity in free agency but for the fact that he was awarded the team's transition tag, which requires another team to lose a first round draft choice in order to sign him.

Franks is unhappy; he has not signed a contract, nor did he attend any day of the mini-camps. The Packer management has shown no urgency to resolve the situation. That fact has had an unexpected effect. Wide receiver Javon Walker, who has a contract, is holding out for a re-negotiation. His best argument is that he does not want to wait until he is a free agent and then be treated as Bubba Franks is being treated. Resolving the situation with Franks may be a key to resolving the Walker situation as well.

The absence of Bubba Franks provides an excellent opportunity for the other tight ends on the roster to step forward. David Martin is an established veteran who is an adequate reserve; however, since he was drafted out of Tennessee, martin's development has been the opposite of what had been expected. A wide receiver in college, Martin has outstanding speed for a tight end. The expectation was, that if he could be taught to block at s minimal level, his speed could be used to create a deep threat. What has actually happened is that Martin has bulked up and become a pretty good blocker in the running game. The problem is that he does not reliably beat defensive coverage in the passing game. Big plays happen, but 1-2 per year will not make any Packer Fan believe that Martin can be the next Keith Jackson or Jackie Harris.

Speaking of big plays, last seasons third string tight end Ben Steele had a beauty with a victory saving fumble recovery against Minnesota. Other than that, Steele could not block or catch and was a complete failure in the offense. In the mini-camps this season, "Hands of Steele" continued to drop passes. Sean McHugh, who was either on the practice squad or inactive last season, has never been known as a receiver. He is likely to stay with the team only if Franks or Martin are gone. Unless he has an outstanding pre-season, Steele will be released.

With neither Franks nor Martin a sure thing for next season, one might have expected a draft choice to be used for a tight end. That did not happen; however, one of the teams most highly sought rookie free agents was Garrett Cross, whose major claim to fame is that he was a favorite receiver for first round draft choice Aaron Rodgers at California. Cross was injured in mini-camp and has not had the opportunity to show whether he can contribute. At 6-4 245, his size is far from ideal.

There is a small glimmer of hope offered by a recently signed rookie free agent. Steve Fleming 6-6 262 Arizona. Fleming began to be noticed as a senior when he began to show the ability to work himself open and used his size to catch key passes. Invited to the Hula Bowl, Fleming stood out at that second tier all-star event. Originally signed by the New York Giants, he was cut for some reason and signed last week with Green Bay. Training camp will be his chance to show whether he belongs.

B Until Franks signs a contract for this season, the tight end position will present a huge issue. Even assuming he does sign and stays healthy, the third string position is wide open. As training camp progresses, other teams tight end discards will be carefully analyzed by the Packers, and new faces may well be added to the mix. The position is not close to being settled.

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