Martellus Bennett recently announced he was “pretty sure” he will be retiring after the 2017 season (and postseason, if applicable) via Instagram post.
Appears as though Packers TE Martellus Bennett is heading toward retirement upon the conclusion of the 2017 season. pic.twitter.com/aWBDXBdlP3
— Nick Shook (@TheNickShook) October 29, 2017
Neither Bennett nor coach McCarthy wanted to comment after the post predictably grabbed headlines. The Packers need to assume he will retire, however, and plan for the future at tight end.
Martellus Bennett’s career began in 2008, when the Cowboys drafted him in the second round. They didn’t just want a backup for Jason Witten, however. They wanted a complement to the HoF-caliber tight end, someone they could deploy in two TE sets. Bennett took a back seat to Witten as a receiver, but he developed his run blocking over those four years.
After the 2011 season, Bennett left Dallas in free agency for the opportunity to start. The Giants gave him that opportunity with a one-year $2.5 million contract, and he rewarded them with 626 yards and five touchdowns on 55 receptions. The next year, he earned a four-year deal worth slightly more than $20 million from the Bears, with whom he won a Pro Bowl nod in 2014. He then had a one-year stint with the Patriots, winning a championship along the way, before joining the Packers.Embed from Getty Images
So far this season, Bennett has displayed the aggressive run blocking he developed under Jason Witten. However, he has fallen short of the receiving production he was ostensibly signed for. Standing at 6’6”, Bennett looks like a red zone threat, but so far he has zero touchdowns through seven games. He has several drops despite only recording 24 receptions so far. Even if he hangs up his cleats after the season, he needs to step up to give Brett Hundley a big target over the middle.
Bennett’s Instagram post was vague, and it’s possible he’ll still play after this season. He wouldn’t be the first player to change his mind after publicly announcing retirement, not even the first Packers player to do so. But if we assume he only plays more 8-12 games in the NFL, then the Packers will need to decide what to do at tight end going forward.
Thanks to some shrewd negotiating by Russ Ball, Bennett will lose most of his salary if he does retire. He would carry very little dead money going forward. The Packers, therefore, won’t be unduly burdened trying to replace him in free agency. Richard Rodgers is slated to become a free agent after his rookie contract expires after this season. The former Play of the Year co-recipient could draw interest with his flashes of playmaking ability, similar to Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward, who were both given chances to start outside the Packers and flourished. However, versatile DBs tend to command more money than slow-footed tight ends who are only average blockers at best. Re-signing Richard Rodgers would certainly be a good first step.
Aside from re-signing Richard Rodgers, the Packers probably won’t find much on the free agent market. Jimmy Graham will be available, but he’ll cost upwards of $10 million a year. Tyler Eifert will hit the market, but he’s been a boom-or-bust receiver when healthy, which isn’t often. The Packers probably won’t look to take on any big contracts in a trade, either. After all, the team moving the contract is usually doing so for a reason.
The best option they have right now is in-house. Lance Kendricks was an easily-overlooked addition to the roster, signed to a two-year contract shortly after Bennett was brought on board. Like Jared Cook, Kendricks was signed as a street agent after being cut by the Rams. And like Cook, Kendricks has flashed receiving ability that could never truly materialize with the Rams’ revolving door of mediocre quarterbacks.
With only a year on Kendricks’ contract after this season, the Packers will need to look to the draft. Since his first draft in 2005, Ted Thompson has drafted six tight ends, and none higher than Jermichael Finley in the third round of the 2008 draft. Only Finley, Andrew Quarless, and Richard Rodgers developed into solid receivers. Even if Kendricks gets extended or re-signed, the Packers should finally utilize the draft to find a playmaking tight end. Rookie TEs typically take a year of development to either learn to block, learn to catch & run routes, or both. Even blue chip prospects often need time to learn pro-style blocking and route concepts. A rookie selected in the 2018 NFL draft would have that opportunity with Kendricks under contract for the year. Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews is an intriguing tight end prospect, and it’s possible he could be available to the Packers in the second round. Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli, well-known to Badger fans everywhere, is also a legitimately good prospect.