GREEN BAY—Last year, even when he was on the active roster for nearly a month, tight end Andrew Quarless couldn't have made this type of play.
During an OTA practice inside the Don Hutson Center on Tuesday, Quarless took a short, tight end screen pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, turned upfield and began to accelerate with the defense in pursuit.
He looked smooth, athletic and most importantly, nothing like the player last fall who was struggling to come back from reconstructive knee surgery.
"I'm just thankful to be out there," Quarless said following Tuesday's workout. "It feels good to have A-Rod hitting me and looking for me and stuff like that. I'm just thankful. I'm full-fledged, everything forward right now."
Quarless is in a good place, which hasn't necessarily been the case for the past 18 months, since he injured his knee covering a kickoff against the Giants in Week 13 of 2011.
He began 2012 on the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) list and was activated after nine weeks. He didn't play in either of the next two games, though, and was placed on injured reserve after Thanksgiving.
He stayed involved by writing the weekly game-plan test for his position group, but in all reality, his third NFL season was a total washout. He called it one of the hardest things he's had to deal with in his life.
"To be away from football, just to be able to watch, to not make a contribution to help my team – I'm a big team player – it was just really tough," he said. "It was really tough for me."
When he finally began practicing around midseason last year, Quarless had high hopes for returning to the field, and he gave it everything he had. But he knew the knee "just wasn't ready," as difficult as it was for the competitor in Quarless to admit. It would swell up after strenuous workouts and send him other distress signals. The move to IR was disappointing but not totally surprising.
Fast forward to this spring and Quarless looks and feels healthy. Mike McCarthy said he's in the best shape the head coach has seen since Quarless arrived as a fifth-round draft pick out of Penn State in 2010.
That rookie season, with starter Jermichael Finley sidelined due to injury after five games, Quarless caught 21 passes for 238 yards and a TD. He added five more receptions in the postseason.
The following year, with Finley back, Quarless' numbers dipped (three catches, 36 yards), but he proved to be one of the team's better blockers at tight end before the injury. He also became a regular on special teams.
In a perfect world, 2013 will be the year Quarless showcases the entire package, but the tight end position is crowded. After Finley, third-year pro D.J. Williams is seen as another potential stretch-the-field pass-catcher. Brandon Bostick is also a young prospect in the Finley mold. Meanwhile, newcomer Matthew Mulligan is a veteran known for his blocking, Ryan Taylor has developed into a special-teams leader during his first two seasons and undrafted rookie Jake Stoneburner is just getting started.
The competition will have to sort itself out. Quarless plans to use his rugged, physical style to do some of the sorting come training camp, when everyone is wearing more than just shorts, jerseys and helmets. He says the whole injury ordeal and extended layoff has put a chip on his shoulder.
"Growing up, I always enjoyed the contact," he said. "That's one of the reasons I played football.
"I'm really anxious to put those pads back on. I'm anxious to show the younger guys what I can do."
He showed something Tuesday with that tight end screen. It's a play he said he hadn't run in probably two years, and it sure felt good.
"My goal for this season is just to prove to myself I can get back out there and do it," he said. "I have to take little steps. I definitely have high expectations for myself. I just have to prove I can really do it again."