Wake-up calls come in all shapes and sizes. No, the Packers didn’t select tight end Greg Olsen, but they did send a loud message to Bubba Franks this off-season. At minicamp, 2006 backups Donald Lee and Tory Humphrey worked with the first-team offense. It wasn’t just a sly coaching ploy. It was the unofficial declaration of open competition.
For seven seasons Franks has secured a starting spot behind red zone efficiency (three 7-plus touchdown seasons) and rock solid blocking. But over the last two years the former has faded (one TD in 26 games) and the latter is increasingly irrelevant in the zone blocking scheme.
Hidden beneath Franks’ three Pro Bowl bids was lumbering route running. Only twice has he averaged more than 10 yards per catch in a season. And only once has he eclipsed the 50-catch plateau. In comparison, former Packer Mark Chmura averaged double-digit yards per catch in six of his seven seasons, and Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez has had 50-plus catch seasons in nine straight years.
It’s no secret. The West Coast offense is predicated on a tight end that can stretch the field. Franks has had almost a decade to fulfill this role. Time’s up.
He isn’t exactly breaking the bank, but it still is a tad unreasonable to retain someone who carries a $1.4 base salary strictly as a sixth lineman and backup tight end. In Year Two, McCarthy’s offense shouldn’t need to lean on max protection blocking, Franks’ main job last year.
Like Franks, Lee dropped his share of passes last season. But he has shown big play ability in limited action. Over the past two years he has started only seven games yet caught five balls over 20 yards. In that span the much stiffer Franks started 22 games and made only two such plays. And of course all fans remember Franks’ embarrassing outing against Minnesota last year when he dropped a few passes and fumbled a game-clinching touchdown at the one-yard line.
Is Lee an athletic David Martin tease or a valid starting option?
It is still too premature to etch that answer in stone but the writing is on the wall. With his skills diminishing, Franks has become a liability. Lee, Humphrey, and Zac Alcorn may lack the bulk to bring a Franks-like punch to running game, but their offensive potential is high and adequate blocking can be taught.
Now it’s time for Green Bay to pull a George Costanza by going with a completely opposite decision than they’re used to. In 2007, Mike McCarthy should go with a totally new group at tight end for the first time this century. Franks and Martin combined for only 430 yards and two scores in ’06.
A new combination means new results. Why not give it a shot?
Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University and frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dunne takes a closer look at Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in the third part of his series on Saturday on PackerReport.com.