A New Emphasis on Tight Ends in the LaFleur Era

The Packers lacked production from their tight ends in 2018 (and earlier). The unit's production in Week 1 of 2019 is already a good sign of things to come under a new head coach and offensive coordinator. 

The Packers knew they needed to do more with the tight end position going into the 2019 season. 

In 2018, the unit consisting of Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Lance Kendricks, and Robert Tonyan combined for 124 targets netting 81 receptions, 922 yards, and four total touchdowns on the season. Stretching that over a 16-game season, The tight end unit would only have five receptions and 58 yards per game, with a touchdown coming every four games. 

In just one game of the 2019 season, those numbers are already improving. The trio of Graham, Lewis, and Tonyan (with rookie Jace Sternberger on injured reserve), had 10 targets against the Bears good for six receptions, 72 total yards, and one touchdown. 

What’s more, Lewis has already almost matched his total production numbers from 2018 after one game. In 2018, Lewis only had three receptions for 39 yards. Against the Bears last week, he had two receptions for 14 yards, not to mention a missed opportunity for another completion on a sideline grab from Aaron Rodgers. 

“The scheme with LaFleur and what he likes to do is really tight end friendly,” said Lewis. “And then we’ve got Nathaniel Hackett here who was in Jacksonville with me. He knows what makes my engine go.”

Lewis certainly had a productive engine throughout his tenure in Jacksonville. When new Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was the OC in Jacksonville for the 2016 and 2017 seasons with Lewis, Lewis had 44 receptions for 487 yards and six touchdowns, with five coming during the 2017 season. Given Lewis’ reputation as a blocking tight end, it’s important to remember he’s still a dangerous option in the passing game at 6-6, 267lbs.

With the Tennessee Titans in 2018, then offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur didn’t shy away from his tight end group, even after his star player Delanie Walker went down Week 1 and was lost for the season with a broken ankle. Playing with the trio of Luke Stocker, Jonnu Smith, and MyCole Pruitt, LaFleur still got six touchdowns from his tight end unit. 

“It’s just tight end friendly,” reiterated Lewis of the offense and what makes it different than last year. 

Week 1 against Chicago, Graham (35), Lewis (34), and Tonyan (20) all saw plenty of snaps on offense. Graham also caught the team’s lone touchdown of the night, a good sign of things to come moving forward. 

“Me, Jimmy, Rob, we’re going to have meaningful reps,” said Lewis. 

All three players have something different to prove in 2019. Jimmy Graham is looking for a bounce-back season after a down year in Green Bay. Statistically, it’s entirely possible he puts on a show in second season wearing green and gold. 

In Graham’s first year with the Seattle Seahawks, he played in 11 games and had 48 receptions for 605 yards and two touchdowns. In his second season, he improved to 16 games played, 923 yards, and six touchdowns. That’s already more yardage and receptions than the entire Packers tight end unit had in 2018. If Graham can make another second-year leap in Green Bay, that will bode well for the offense moving forward. 

Additionally, Tonyan spent the offseason training with George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers, a product of Kyle Shanahan’s offense (something LaFleur is all too familiar with). 

In 2018, Kittle posted 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. While it’s not fair to expect Tonyan to match that type of production as the third TE on the depth chart, it does show the motivation Tonyan has to be a productive player on offense. 

We’re only one game into the season, but the numbers at tight end already look different than they did towards the end of the Mike McCarthy Era. If the Packers’ tight end unit performed the exact same as they did Week 1 for all 16 games, they’d end the season with 96 receptions for 1,152 yards and 16 touchdowns. The receptions and yardage are improvement enough, but the touchdown production would be an incredible boost to a brand new offense looking to find its rhythm in a balanced passing and rushing attack.

“In the run game. In the pass game. We’re kind of marrying what we like to do in both aspects,” said Lewis. “It’s kind of what I was doing in Jacksonville a little bit with Nathaniel when he was there. And him and LaFleur, that’s a good marriage.”

Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV and a podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (32)

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Mistergee5's picture

September 10, 2019 at 03:33 pm

Hopefully, they will continue with the multiple TE sets. This should free up one or more of our WR’s. I would also like to see Tonyan, Lewis, and Davis or Graham, Lewis and Kumerow at the same time playing. Davis for his slippery speed and Jake for his hands. Go Pack Go!!!

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PatrickGB's picture

September 10, 2019 at 03:49 pm

Thanks Maggie. Wouldn’t it be fun to have Rodgers say after this next game “We have a Tight End Group” ?
With Lewis catching a few balls then it doesn’t always look like it’s going to be a run play when he is on the field. I even swore that I saw Graham blocking a few times. And Tonyan looked open and this good from a player new to his position.

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ThxJackVainisi's picture

September 10, 2019 at 04:28 pm

I mentioned after the game that we saw the result of Lewis dropping weight in the off season. He's obviously not fast but he isn't lumbering as he was last season. Patrick hit on the importance of Lewis catching some passes: Defenses can't assume it's a run just because he's on the field.

Since '61 makes a good point - how foolish to have just Graham attempt to block Mack. What Graham and Tonyan can do is get position on a block and get in the way. While that obviously doesn't work at the point of attack, it can work on the backside of the play.

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Hawg Hanner's picture

September 10, 2019 at 08:49 pm

Bubba Franks wasn't fast either

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Coldworld's picture

September 11, 2019 at 07:29 am

Fast doesn’t matter in that role if you are a plus blocker who can catch. Lewis with the ball is a load to bring down and is primarily a surprise target whom the D allow to find space.

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Coldworld's picture

September 10, 2019 at 05:02 pm

Get Vitale in the mix and, based on camp, one could actually have quite a aerial threat with Lewis and Vitale both out there. Add in Williams, as the basest catching back, Davis or Shepherd and there are a ton of possibilities for a D to worry about and variations of those by combination. That would take some focus off Adams and MVS in short order.

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jannes bjornson's picture

September 10, 2019 at 10:51 pm

If the queens are w/out Hughes or Mackenzie this week, you have to spread them out and let Rodgers pick them apart.

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Coldworld's picture

September 11, 2019 at 07:33 am

Which is one reason why we may see more of Davis. Also RBs in the passing game. Get lateral as well as vertical spread.

By doing that, you make the Vikings outside rushers ad ILBs have to worry about holding the edge, which is a major advantage. That approach is very difficult against the Bears because if their depth of rush and speed throughout the front 7.

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Since '61's picture

September 10, 2019 at 03:53 pm

If MLF is serious about making the ground game work against the Vikings he needs to give more snaps to Lewis who is the only TE who can actually throw a block.

Early in the game against Chicago MLF called an inside handoff to A. Jones with Graham assigned to block against Khalil Mack!?!?!? Graham was blown up by Mack and then dropped Jones for a loss by Mack.

The Packers didn’t run that play again for the rest of the game. Maybe Rodgers audibled out of it if it was called again and who could blame him.

In any case, expecting Graham to be an effective blocker is a non-starter. Put Lewis and/or Vitale on the field for running plays.

As for targeting our TEs more often I’m all for it if they can get some separation. Thanks, Since ‘61

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Coldworld's picture

September 10, 2019 at 05:09 pm

We don’t want teams to know that we won’t run with certain lineups or formations, but I would hope that we would leave the heavy duty full on blocking to Lewis or Vitale when seeking to get the run going. Frankly Williams in a 2 RB set as well.

Lewis’s contribution on Thursday just confirms how incomprehensible his lack of use was last year for me. Not earth shattering numbers but crucial yards.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

September 12, 2019 at 08:28 am

Tonyan may not block like Lewis but is light years better than Graham. He can run, jump, and catch better than Graham as well. Get Tonyan on the field more than 20 snaps.

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Lare's picture

September 10, 2019 at 04:39 pm

I think the point is to have a multiple attack on offense. The Packers last year were mostly all passes to WR's. if you mix in the run and passes to TE's & RB's you add other elements that opposing defenses need to gameplan for.

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Jonathan Spader's picture

September 10, 2019 at 10:10 pm

I thought it was mostly passes to the sideline.

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murf7777's picture

September 10, 2019 at 04:48 pm

It was great seeing Graham stretch the defense and get a PI call. In addition, using his body against a smaller defender for the TD. Tonyan will also strech the field while Mercedes will do some great blocking and break off for some key first downs and a TD or two. All told, I see those three with 12 TD’s and 1200 yds this year. Tonyan will have a breakout year. We will see those 3 make a big difference against Minnie.

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Coldworld's picture

September 10, 2019 at 05:11 pm

I agree, I would not be surprised to see a lot of TEs and Vitale against the Vikings.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

September 12, 2019 at 08:30 am

Murf,
2 dislikes? Gave you a thumbs up!

Agree about Tonyan. He is the future and future is now. He will out produce Graham this year even with less snaps.

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OldPacker's picture

September 10, 2019 at 05:29 pm

If we do not run the ball 30 times a game ..with the weight of the runs in the 1st half .. Its going to be hard to have a winning season and a playoff run .. Teams will continue to rush without a second thought .. and you get 5 sacks ..Most everyone knows the difference between a Misdemeanor and a Felony .. The Sacks and hits AR takes falls under Football Felony ... with 80% on the coaches / play caller ..10% on AR and 10% on O line ... Hey Idea for site.. Each week after the game you should list out Misdemeanor's and Felonies ... (Example ) Running the wrong rout "Misdemeanor" easy concept; it will certainly encourage debate ...

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Matt Gonzales's picture

September 10, 2019 at 09:31 pm

We saw more Bad Rodgers than I wanted to see last week, but this is silly. Up until the 4th quarter the run game was getting no traction. How many of Rodgers sacks came on 3rd down? How many were the result of him holding on too long vs. poor blocking? I saw a lot of plays where defenders were immediately breaking through the OL. Are you saying you'd rather have RBs get blown up for negative yards on principle?

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Coldworld's picture

September 11, 2019 at 07:45 am

I hope LaFleur will adapt the game plan to fit the opponent, something MM moved away from. I agree, running the ball as the core of the plan against the Bears would seem to play to their strength.

That said, challenging the Vikings makes more sense, both inside and outside. Part of that is using the FB and Davis, part using the RBs in the ground and through the air. Make the lateral defenders play the run and hold the edge and pull safety help towards the line.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

September 12, 2019 at 08:34 am

CW,
One of the best statements on CHTV in awhile.

"I hope LeFleur will adapt the game plan to fit the opponent, something MM moved away from."

One of my biggest complaints with MM. Great coaches analyze their teams strengths and opponents weaknesses and attack each week.

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Tundraboy's picture

September 10, 2019 at 07:47 pm

When watching Lewis catch that first pass against the Bears I didn't know who caught the ball. And when I saw his face, wondered who's that new guy?

Lots to look forward to this year. It's like we're dusting off some of the new toys we forgot to play with.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

September 10, 2019 at 09:02 pm

I think Graham will at least double his TD numbers from last year, but Lewis is the one that intrigues me more, because he could end up getting a LOT of targets in the short passing game lined up tight and then moving into the flat as a checkdown-type option.

I'm excited to see what MLF does with multiple TE sets, especially if the OL doesn't start to show more improvement with pass protection and keeping clean lanes for our running game. I could see lots and lots of 2-3 TE sets and called outside runs in the near future.

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stockholder's picture

September 10, 2019 at 08:33 pm

Lewis is the Swiss Army knife I thought we wouldn't need. The plan should have been the fast and furious. (A Finley or Jackson.) Lewis is No mystery now. The Packers needed blocking. But could he be Chewie? So far this Offense fits Favre, more then Rodgers. I hope A-rod changes this. Lewis deserves Kudos. But I believe the short passes to Lewis, are a failure of the play. A failure of the blocking. A failure of Rodger's talent. I'm Fine with Rhythm in a balanced passing and rushing attack. But the big plays break defenses.(YAC) The 2 min. offense is about beating the clock. The difference between Wrs and TEs? Is game changers vs. clock management. The less you score, the bigger the burden on the defense.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

September 10, 2019 at 09:15 pm

I hear what you're saying, but based on Rodgers's memorable game highlights, I'd say he likes his big TEs as receiving targets both in the short and long game. That Graham had the only TD of the night was telling. MVS was able to break one deep downfield, but it was Graham that out-muscled a defender to catch a pass in traffic.

I think we will see a lot of games this year where ball control offense is emphasized, and I'm totally fine with that, as it is going to open up more big play opportunities elsewhere when defenses start to get gassed and try to bite too hard on the play they think is coming.

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Coldworld's picture

September 11, 2019 at 07:50 am

A successful ploy is never a failure for anyone in any game. Taking low risk yards effectively can only help. Lewis will likely compete with Vitale in some respects, but Ds will struggle to cover everyone. Our TE/FBs will give some teams fits this season I believe. That will only help Adams and the receivers.

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EddieLeeIvory's picture

September 10, 2019 at 09:49 pm

I just want to beat the Vikings so badly.

Gotta take advantage of Harrison Smith's aggressiveness.

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dblbogey's picture

September 10, 2019 at 11:50 pm

I miss screen plays and draws.

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ShooterMcGee's picture

September 10, 2019 at 11:52 pm

I would like to see ARod go 1 game without getting sacked. Last year Baker Mayfield wasn't sacked in 5 games. How can a rookie QB and coach accomplish this but we cannot?
They must incorporate more quick passes to the TEs and RBs. They can also call more screens and jet sweeps for the wrs. Having a FB like Vitale who can both run and catch is also an advantage. Hopefully as the weeks go by our offense will look more innovative. Using every position effectively should be the goal. I heard a Sean McVay quote he wants the defense to defend "every blade of grass." Much preferable to our QB being laid out on the grass.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 11, 2019 at 01:12 am

I think Lewis is going to have some significant catch and lumber yardage this year. And I expect it to make me smile.

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Donster's picture

September 11, 2019 at 07:11 am

Starts with the offensive line. Bulaga played very well against Da Bears, Bak pretty good, then it was downhill from there. The line has to improve or this season isn't going anywhere. MLF must go to quick passes, throws to the RB's and TE's. Rodgers must, and I put the emphasis on must, quit looking constantly for the big play. 8-10 yard completions is a good thing. Sometimes I think Rodgers forgets that. A 12+ play drive is just as good as hitting a 60 yd TD pass. Keeping the Queen's offense on the damn sidelines. Defense gets to rest. Take the crowd out of it. Those shorter passes will open up the run game too.

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tincada's picture

September 11, 2019 at 08:24 am

“In the run game. In the pass game. We’re kind of marrying what we like to do in both aspects,” Excuse me but what "run game"?

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tincada's picture

September 11, 2019 at 08:24 am

“In the run game. In the pass game. We’re kind of marrying what we like to do in both aspects,” Excuse me but what "run game"?

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