GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers likes what he sees when he looks around the Green Bay Packers’ No. 1 offense: Familiar faces.
With running back Eddie Lacy in the backfield, top wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb entrenched and first-year starting center JC Tretter having established himself as the clear-cut choice in the middle of the offensive line, continuity has reigned throughout training camp on offense, providing Rodgers with his most consistent group since he became the team’s starting quarterback in 2008.
The glaring exception is at tight end, where the Packers are still trying to determine roles as they enter their third preseason game, Friday night against Oakland at Lambeau Field.
“Although there were some questions early on about the center position, I think JC definitely separated himself, and we were really able to operate as a No. 1 offense with -- other than the tight end position – not many of those spots [with any] gray area on who was going to be the guy,” Rodgers said.
That hasn’t been the case at tight end, where the team’s incumbent starter, Jermichael Finley, suffered a career-threatening neck injury last October and remains a free agent amid uncertainty as to whether he will ever resume playing.
Throughout training camp, the battle to replace him has included fifth-year veteran Andrew Quarless, who started 10 games last season; rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers, who has started each of the first two preseason games; Brandon Bostick, who played in 11 games last season, his first on the 53-man roster; and Jake Stoneburner and Ryan Taylor, both of whom have played more on special teams than on offense.
Another tight end, undrafted rookie free agent Colt Lyerla, suffered a knee injury Aug. 2 and was waived/injured Tuesday and expected to take what amounts to a medical redshirt on injured reserve this season.
“I think they’re just putting it out there for the taking,” said Quarless, who had back-to-back games in which he caught six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown last December, in victories over Dallas and Atlanta. “Coming back into it, I knew it was something I was going to have to earn.”
The tight end rotation last week at St. Louis had Rodgers starting the game and playing all 12 plays during the opening touchdown drive, although he did not catch a pass. He had one catch for 10 yards in the preseason opener at Tennessee.
Asked if a rookie could be the team’s every-down tight end, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot replied, “I think he has the tools to, yeah. Again, we’ve got a ways to go to get there. But he certainly has the tools.”
After Rodgers exited, Bostick took over on the second offensive series but suffered a lower leg injury and departed after four plays. Quarless then entered and had a 35-yard catch that set up a field goal.
“I really like the growth [at the tight end position]. I think that group jumped out in the spring and I think they carried it on throughout the training camp,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “Obviously, [there will be] more opportunities for the other guys because of Brandon’s injury. But I think that as a group they’ve continued to get better.”
While the Packers have historically kept four to five tight ends on their 53-man roster during McCarthy’s previous eight seasons – they kept four last year, with Stoneburner being promoted from the practice squad following Finley’s neck injury – those tight ends have usually had defined roles, and Finley was the unquestioned starter when healthy.
Now, the position is wide open with just over two weeks to go until the Sept. 4 regular-season opener at Seattle. Bostick is hoping to be back in the lineup by then, and if he’s not, the competition is different still.
“Everybody in the room gets an opportunity to step up,” Fontenot said. “And every opportunity you get, you need to make the most of it because I think that the competition in our room is thickening. It’s going to be a tough decision come the final week of the preseason.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.