GREEN BAY — At the end of June, Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan went back to school — at Tight End University, a coming-together of tight ends across the NFL for workouts and camaraderie in Nashville, Tennessee.
The brainchild of the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and recently retired tight end Greg Olson, the summit brought 49 tight ends — including Tonyan, a close friend and workout partner of Kittle’s during previous offseasons — together at Lipscomb Academy for the three-day event.
“Just getting a group of guys around the league together to just talk ball, work out together for the long weekend and have a good time,” Tonyan said. “Just to network and see where everyone is at, where everyone’s mind is at and seeing the work ethic of everyone across the board (to) try to bring the fraternity of tight ends together across the league.”
Given Tonyan’s emergence last season, the veteran presence of 37-year-old Marcedes Lewis and the potential of 2020 third-round pick Josiah Deguara, the Packers might have enough good tight ends to put together an in-season satellite campus for TE-U.
Tonyan, of course, is set to lead the way after tying a single-season franchise record for touchdown receptions by a tight end (11) last year during a breakout season in which he caught 52 of the 59 passes thrown his way (an impressive 88.1% catch rate) for 586 yards and 33 first downs. In two playoff games, he caught all eight passes thrown to him for 82 yards, a touchdown and four first downs before the Packers’ season ended in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl LIV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The expectations for him are still high. He has high expectations for himself,” tight ends coach Justin Outten said. “He’s got his own set of goals that he wants to get better at each day. Just seeing the whole broad picture of everything, knowing every position on the field, he knows that he can take his game to another level in all facets. Not just (blocking) in the run game. His route-tree is getting better as we move forward, the pass game has come alive in the protection world. He’s still continuing to make strides.”
Tonyan credits Lewis’ mentoring for accelerating his development from a college quarterback-turned-wide receiver into a legitimate pass-catching NFL tight end, but Lewis is back for a fourth season in Green Bay for more than just his experience and wisdom. He’s still the unit’s best run-blocker, and he’s shown he can make plays in the pass game on those rare occasions when the ball comes his way.
“I think it’s a great to have a guy like Marcedes Lewis here, who’s played this game and is a pro’s pro and has played at such a high level,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “He’s another great resource for Bobby to kind of pick his brain and lean on and learn from.”
After that, Deguara appeared well on his way to being a significant contributor as a rookie last season before his knee injury, while 2019 third-round pick Jace Sternberger will try to reverse his fortunes after a pair of non-descript seasons. Add in Dominique Dafney, who was an out-of-nowhere revelation last season, and the Packers have an intriguing mix in their tight end group.
Here’s a closer look at the tight end position as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is scheduled to begin for the full roster next Wednesday:
89 Marcedes Lewis: 6-foot-6, 267 pounds, 37 years old, 16th year from UCLA.
85 Robert Tonyan: 6-5, 237, 27, fourth year Indiana State.
87 Jace Sternberger: 6-4, 251, 25, third year from Texas A&M.
81 Josiah Deguara: 6-2, 238, 24, second year from Cincinnati.
49 Dominique Dafney: 6-5, 243, 24, first year from Indiana State.
45 Bronson Kaufusi: 6-6, 270, 30, third year from BYU.
82 Isaac Nauta: 6-3, 246, 24, third year from Georgia.
What does Tonyan do for an encore?
Among those who saw Tonyan’s potential early on was quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was working with the scout team during the 2017 season as he worked his way back from a broken right collarbone. During practice, Tonyan — a recent addition to the team’s practice squad — showed Rodgers that he had the kind of natural ability to someday be a legit NFL tight end, once he actually understood a position that was largely foreign to him. That’s why Tonyan’s emergence last year came as no surprise to the three-time NFL MVP.
Still, there were those who thought Tonyan benefited from playing with one of the all-time great quarterbacks, and that in another offense with another guy throwing to him, he might’ve been just another guy. While Rodgers disagreed with that premise, Tonyan may have the chance to prove it false if Rodgers stays away from training camp amid his ongoing feud with the team’s front office. Tonyan, though, kept in regular contact with Rodgers during the offseason and would much rather be viewed as a beneficiary of Rodgers’ greatness than play without him.
“I think (last season) is just a good foundation for what I stand for and what I stand on, just continuing to come in here every day and work, and get better,” Tonyan said. “I stand on my hard work. I stand on coming into work and putting that hard hat on and just working. It’s been great for me thus far and I’m going to continue to do that, and continue to look at the faults in my game and continue to try to bring those up and make those a strength.”
On the rise
It’s hard to know just what kind of impact Deguara would have had last season if not for his torn ACL, but judging by how much time Deguara spent working with the No. 1 offense during training camp, LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had big plans for him. That Deguara’s season ended after two games was unfortunate, but the timing of the injury and subsequent surgery allowed him to be further along in the rehabilitation process than veteran left tackle David Bakhtiari, who tore his ACL on Dec. 31. The two did rehab work together at organized team activity practices, and while Bakhtiari may not be cleared in time for the Sept. 12 season opener, Deguara could be back in action when camp opens.
“Getting Josiah on board with us, it just adds another dimension and brings the offense alive,” Outten said. “As he progresses, I just feel like he’s going to open up some more things for us, just being as universal as he is. His career, it’s going to be a long one for him in this league. We’re excited to have him and what he brings to the offense.”
Player to watch
While most of the veterans stayed away from OTAs, there was the ageless Lewis, grinding through drill work and setting an example for his younger compadres. Although he has only caught 28 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns in 47 regular-season games during his first three years in Green Bay, he has delivered far more than what’s on the stat sheet. Expect that to continue as long as he’s healthy.
“When it comes to Marcedes, I don’t know if anybody can do what he does,” Hackett said. “He did some amazing things last year and he’s kind of that unsung hero, the guy that he does so many things for our team that go unnoticed at times because they might not be the flashy touchdowns or whatever. But it’s hard to replace a guy like that. We’re going to be training people, and they’ve got a great mentor in Marcedes. He’s one of the best ever.”
Sternberger vs. himself
A year ago at this time, all the talk was about Sternberger, who finished his rookie season with three catches for 15 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs after not catching a single pass during a regular season derailed by injuries (ankle, concussion).
Instead of emerging as a young up-and-comer, Sternberger appeared to regress and wound up finishing the season as a healthy scratch for both playoff games in January. Now, he’ll miss the first two games of the season after being suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on substances of abuse. He’ll have to prove himself in camp to earn a third year on the roster.
“Just seeing his progression and wrapping his mind around the playbook, and getting the techniques down,” Outten replied when asked what he needs to see from Sternberger in camp. “Less thinking, playing faster — those are the things that he’s continuing to work on. He’s got his chances moving forward here like everybody else will.”
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