You won't find many headlines about new Green Bay Packers tight end Colt Lyerla that do not include some wording of the phrase "talented but troubled."
Lyerla's off-the-field problems—which include a one-game suspension, an eventual departure from Oregon, arrest for cocaine possession and government conspiracy peddling—are all well documented and widely available. His red flags remain the central reason why he went undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft and then received nothing more than a tryout opportunity with the Packers.
Believe it or not, less is probably known about Colt Lyerla, the football player.
All transgressions off the field notwithstanding, Lyerla combines rare athleticism and unique versatility to provide a starting-quality talent package to the tight end position at the next level. After studying the majority of his 2012 snaps, it became clear he can be a difference-maker in the NFL.
One quick note on this process, which I think is important: I do not know Colt Lyerla personally. I was not a part of his interview process before the draft. I did not attend the Packers rookie minicamp. These realities negate me from providing a full and honest look at what kind of person he is when not on the football field, or how he interacts with other players in the locker room. For that reason, I will decline to make any assumptions on his character or makeup as a human being.
However, I do believe in second chances, and that's exactly what Ted Thompson and the Packers appear to be giving Lyerla now.
Most know the off-the-field risk in the former Oregon tight end. But here's what the Packers are getting in Lyerla on the field:
Yards After the Catch
No tight end in the 2014 class, save for maybe Eric Ebron (who went No. 10 overall to the Detroit Lions), possesses more running ability after the catch than Lyerla. In fact, he was so good with the ball in his hands, Oregon freely used Lyerla—a decorated prep running back—as a primary ball-carrier on some formations.
"As a freshman I compared him to (Rob) Gronkowski," one scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "They played him at tight end, H-back, fullback. In high school he was one of the top rushers in the nation."
Over three years in Eugene, Lyerla carried 16 times for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Seven of those carries and 67 of his yards came in one 2012 game against Arizona.
Here's one of his seven carries that night:
You just don't see many tight ends with this kind of lateral agility, strength and straight-line speed. Lyerla takes the handoff and makes one swift cut outside, before delivering a crushing stiff-arm to a would-be tackler and then accelerating up the sidelines. The run goes for 20 yards.
But Lyerla was equally deadly when Oregon got him the football as a receiver.
He combines impressive acceleration with tremendous body control and an unrivaled reluctance to go to ground. Routinely, Lyerla either ran away from tacklers or bowled them over, and it usually took a crowd of defenders to finally get No. 15 on the turf.
Maybe Lyerla's most impressive display of run-after-the-catch ability came against Stanford in 2012:
He catches a quick, mostly routine out route against the defending linebacker. His speed out of the break and after the catch allows him to slip the diving tackle attempt from the linebacker, and then he lowers his shoulder to run over the pursuing safety. The safety arrives in good position, but Lyerla's power at the point of attack puts No. 8 on his heels and eventually on the ground. It then takes three other defenders putting a hit on Lyerla to finally take him off his feet.
The Packers will like his ability to make plays after the catch, especially if Jermichael Finley (neck) doesn't return to Green Bay. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Finley averaged 9.5 yards after the catch last season, which led all tight ends with at least 20 catches. He also created 10 missed tackles in just five games.
The Packers fell in love with giving Finley short passes in space—particularly in the short flats—and then letting him chew up yards after the catch. A former All-State high school running back in Oregon, Lyerla has the kind of physical attributes necessary to be a similar menace after the catch in the NFL.
Also, don't count out what the Packers could do with him in terms of formations. Lyerla caught one of his six touchdowns in 2012 on a flare out from the backfield. The Packers can move him around—from in-line to the backfield and even in the slot—in an effort to provide better run-after-the-catch opportunities.
Middle of the Field Receiver
Any starting tight end in today's game needs to be able to work the middle of the field. Busting the seam, sitting down against zones and providing a comfort blanket underneath are all things the best tight ends in today's NFL do consistently well.
Lyerla made the most of his rare opportunities to get down the middle of the field for Oregon.
His dominant physical tools helped. At the combine in Indianapolis, Lyerla ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds—third fastest amongst tight ends and only a tick behind Ebron (4.6)—and also posted top numbers in the vertical jump (39", first) and broad jump (10'8", tied for first). He did it all while standing 6'4" (same height as Ebron) and weighing 242 pounds (only eight pounds lighter than Ebron).
Using those tools, Lyerla burned Cal for two big plays over the middle in 2012.
Here we see Lyerla attacking the deep seam in between coverages:
The play-action fake helps this play develop, but watch as Lyerla beats the nickel cornerback inside and then catches the pass beyond the safety, who is attempting to recover deep. It's a small window, but Lyerla creates enough separation—using mostly straight-line speed—to provide his quarterback an opening to make the throw.
The Packers could use this exact look a lot in 2014. Play fakes to Eddie Lacy out of a one-back, shotgun look, with Lyerla (or any other tight end) positioned in-line, could create big-play chances down the middle of the field. It's a matter of fooling the linebackers and occupying the safeties, both of which Aaron Rodgers is very good at accomplishing.
The red zone is another important area for tight ends. The middle of the field can be a weak spot against heavily used red-zone defenses.
The second time Lyerla split two deep defenders against Cal, he ended up in the end zone for six:
Lyerla beats the initial jam from the defender on the line and works his way inside of the covering safety, who is floating around in his area. This is heavy zone coverage all the way, from the linebackers to the safeties. Teams revert to zone inside the 20-yard line because it allows defenses to further shrink the field. It can be hard to find room inside a confined space when seven or more defenders drop into a zone.
But Lyerla finds the weak spot in Cal's zone, and when his quarterback looks off the deep safety to his right, he's open down the middle of the field.
Lyerla's big frame and jumping ability allows him to make this catch—the ball was thrown somewhat high—look mostly routine. He snatches the pass with his 10.25" hands for the score.
Lyerla might not be Rob Gronkowski in the red zone, but he's more than athletic enough to create mismatches and work the seam. Lyerla will likely be more of a Julius Thomas-type weapon inside the 20. The Broncos move him around and find the best matchup. And at 6'5" and 250 pounds, he usually wins when the Denver offense gets him the right look.
Compare the physical traits of Lyerla and Thomas coming out (Thomas' combine profile can be viewed here). The two are almost identical, with the athletic nod going slightly Lyerla's way. Might Rodgers and the Packers have their own version of Thomas now on the roster?
It wouldn't be fair to call Lyerla a dominant down-to-down blocker. He can lose balance at the point, and he's not physically strong enough (15 reps at the combine) to consistently move defenders on the edge. But he is a try-hard blocker who understands angles and never gives up on a play.
Lyerla is also plenty experienced engaging and walling off players from his time in Oregon's run-heavy offense. He enters the NFL needing refinement, but there's potential for Lyerla to become a legitimate two-way tight end.
Below is one example of Lyerla getting to the edge, engaging his man and walling off the running lane:
He lines up in the backfield. The play calls for Lyerla to be the lead blocker for a quarterback sprint to the right of the formation. Lyerla does his job in finishing off the double-team on the edge, and Oregon has an easy touchdown to the pylon.
The Packers will want to see more of Lyerla taking on defensive ends and linebackers one-on-one in the running game. He'll need to become a more trusted in-line blocker. The tools are there.
More than likely, however, Lyerla's role—if he makes the team—will be as a move tight end. The Packers can put him all over the field, either as a bigger receiver in the slot or as a more athletic fullback in the backfield.
In fact, he could slide right into the role vacated by former fifth-round pick D.J. Williams, who the Packers attempted—with little success—to make into a move tight end.
Who is Colt Lyerla, the Football Player?
On the field, Lyerla has all the physical tools to become a starting NFL tight end. He has speed, jumping ability, production down the field and after the catch, and a workman-like attitude to blocking.
His ceiling might be as a more athletic version of Julius Thomas, who caught 14 touchdown passes for the Broncos last season. The two are similar players, in terms of their size and impressive body control. Lyerla's versatility and ability after the catch reminds of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez.
There might be roadblocks for Lyerla off the field. Maybe his past will eliminate his future as an NFL player.
Or, maybe the stable environment of the Packers organization will allow Lyerla to once again thrive on the football field. Because without much doubt, Lyerla can be a game-changing chess piece when between the white lines.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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