After Years of Searching, Robert Tonyan Provides Dynamic TE Presence

The TE position has been a rubik's cube for the Green Bay Packers, but Robert Tonyan finally gives them that reliable and dynamic presence.

It's been years since the Green Bay Packers have had reliable, dynamic production at the tight end position. And no, that isn't being hyperbolic. Jermichael Finley's last fully healthy season was in 2012, where he posted nearly 700 receiving yards and two touchdowns. 
 
Since the Finley days, it's been a position that Green Bay just hasn't been able to figure out. However, to their credit, that isn't because of a lack of trying. 
 
There was Richard Rodgers, a solid player for a few years but in an ideal situation, not your TE1. The Packers then spent the next few years signing well-known and, at one time, productive players through free agency.
 
In their free agency endeavors, Jared Cook was their biggest success, although due to injuries, he would still only play in 10 games that season. But unfortunately, he would sign with Oakland the following offseason. Then I'm sure we all remember Martellus Bennett, who wasn't even here for half a season, and I'll leave it at that.
 
Most recently, there was Jimmy Graham, who struggled with drops for two seasons, wasn't the red zone threat that we had hoped he'd be and he just isn't the athlete that he once was. 
 
Now with that out of the way, I apologize for making everyone relive what has been the Green Bay Packers' tight end position for the last seven years. 
 
Under Mike McCarthy, despite the lack of consistent production from the tight end position, for the most part, this was still an effective offense during those years. To put it simply, the tight end didn't play a significant role in his system. But that isn't the case with Matt LaFleur. Whether as a blocker or a pass-catcher, tight end is a key position when it comes to unlocking the full potential of this offense. 
 
So this offseason, GM Brian Gutekunst took a different approach. With Marcedes Lewis as their veteran, the Packers decided to rely on three young players at the tight end position rather than explore free agency. And through the first four games, it is the former small-school receiver, Robert Tonyan, who is giving them what they've been searching for at the tight end position all these years. 
 
First off, this is a credit to the Green Bay Packers' organization for giving Tonyan the time he needed to develop. The transition for any college tight end to the NFL level is an extremely difficult one. Even with top draft picks, we rarely see them produce that first season, and sometimes they still don't in Year 2.
 
Tight ends are expected to know blocking techniques and assignments like an offensive lineman but also the intricacies of route running like a receiver. In fact, since 2003, there have been only two rookie tight ends to surpass the 600-yard receiving mark. And in Tonyan's case, it was an even more difficult transition being a former receiver who hadn't played the tight end position.
 
But as the good NFL organizations do, the Packers gave him time, and now they are reaping the rewards for their patience. 
 
Through four games, Tonyan has hauled in 13 receptions on 14 targets for 173 yards and five touchdowns, which is the most in the NFL by a tight end this season. By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which in addition to stats, takes into account down, distance, opponent, as well as several other variables, Tonyan is the league's best tight end, and it isn't particularly close. 
 
Tonyan has developed into a willing blocker in the run game, a reliable target for Aaron Rodgers, especially in the red zone, and he gives this Packer tight end position that playmaking ability they've been missing.
 
All these years later, Green Bay finally has that dynamic tight end they've been searching for. And ironically, it isn't a big free-agent signee. But rather a former quarterback at Indiana State, who converted to a receiver, and then converted to a tight end at the NFL level after going undrafted. 
 
In a world where instant gratification is King, more often than not, that isn't how things work in football. Development takes time and patience, and that is what the Green Bay Packers gave Tonyan. Now, it's paying off. 

 

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Born and raised in Green Bay, WI and I still call it home. After my family, watching the Packers, sharing my opinions on the team through my writing and interacting with other fans is my greatest passion. You can find me on Twitter at @Paul_Bretl. 
 

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Comments (26)

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ImaPayne's picture

October 12, 2020 at 12:40 pm

Wonder why Sternberge wasnt targeted? He did pretty good the previous game. Are they keeping him in to block or what. Dont know? Tonyan had a very nice game, Sternberger could have too if they would have spread it around more.

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Coldworld's picture

October 12, 2020 at 12:49 pm

Tonyan tends to run more of the receiver-like routes whereas Sternberger runs more classic TE routes. This was likely exacerbated by Lewis being out and the loss of Lazard as the big man over the middle. At this point, he has more natural looking hands, seems to know how to find space and is clearly TE 1 on merit this year. Sternberger’s time will come and he is still learning.

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jannes bjornson's picture

October 12, 2020 at 05:07 pm

He already knows the WR's route trees and he started out as a QB, much like Antuan Bolden as a dominant big WR. Tonyan just needs more muscle and is adequate as a blocker. Sternberger may still be the man. Best to have the DbL. TE looks to control the edge. The kid from North Carolina is an Edge control guy.

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Stroh's picture

October 12, 2020 at 11:16 pm

That would be Anquan Boldin, not Antuan.

Tonyan is the #1 receiving TE now. Sternberger was injured last year and then was out with Covid for a long stretch in training camp. That has clearly set him back. Next year I expect Tonyan and Sternberger to be 1a and 1b when it comes to TE. But I don't think Tonyan has the requisite bulk to play as an inline TE, so he is still likely to be the formost receiving TE.

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CheesyTex's picture

October 12, 2020 at 07:29 pm

T-R-U-S-T.

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mnbadger's picture

October 12, 2020 at 01:07 pm

well said CW. Hopefully Big Bob has a couple more big years in him before his production prices him out of our payroll capabilities. I'm enjoying it fully while it lasts. GPG

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Bure9620's picture

October 12, 2020 at 01:08 pm

We might be a bit pre-mature here, he had an outstanding game against ATL, but let's see if Tonyan indeed becomes a primary go to and that dynamic player every week.....the NFL is littered with players who balled out for a few games them slowly disappeared.. I hope he is that dynamic guy...

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cheesehead1's picture

October 12, 2020 at 01:54 pm

I agree Bure9620. He had an excellent game but let’s not crown him the next Kittle just yet. I’m confident he can continue to improve and Sternberger too. What I’d really like to see is a steady improvement by our D. Brady and Co. should be a good test. GPG.

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Coldworld's picture

October 12, 2020 at 05:24 pm

We don’t need a superstar to make an impact though. We need a player who can get key downs and be a red zone threat. Tonyan has become that.

I certainly don’t expect him to routinely get 100 yards and multiple touchdowns, but 50 yards a game would be huge. That’s what Finley’s best season represented.

Tonyan and Sternberger benefit from being in a system where they will benefit from the weapons around them. I certainly think Tonyan will get more attention and thus have quieter days. Up to Adams, Jones and others to capitalize when he does. I also think Sternberger will benefit when both are on the field. In creating opportunities for others Tonyan is making a difference to our offense even when not being targeted.

It is, I think, fair to recognize Tonyan, playing within this system, as a legitimate threat for yards and in the red zone. That’s a big step up from last year, from any post Finley year really except the brief few game flash from Cook when healthy.

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

October 12, 2020 at 07:38 pm

I periodically see Finley used as a benchmark for superior TE performance during his time with the Packers. Finley used to drive me crazy with his drops and at times, I thought of him as the Tight End with hands of stone. I also was disappointed in his constant complaining about lack of targets and he was anything but a positive in the locker room. I'm pleased with the tight ends we currently have on the roster and consider them good "team players" willing to do whatever the coaches require them to do, including blocking with good effort on running plays. By playoff time this season, I believe we will all be pleased with the dual tight end package of Tonyan and Sternberger.

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Fire_Gute's picture

October 12, 2020 at 11:01 pm

I went as Jermichael Finley for Halloween one year during one of his more frustrating seasons. I turned my Clay Matthews jersey into a 88 Finley jersey and taped Butterfinger candy bars to gloves I wore all night. I won several costume contests in Appleton that weekend, it was awesome

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PF4L's picture

October 13, 2020 at 09:01 am

Cheesehead and Bure nailed it. The writer insinuates the years long search for a tight end is over. Because of 2 or 3 good games with the stars aligning great for one of those games.

Problems..or searches are rectified when you find someone who performs at a high level with...consistency. Not because he showed a spurt here and there.

Remember when Rollins and Randall were "crowned" as rookies?

The defense rest Your Honor.

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Matt Gonzales's picture

October 12, 2020 at 02:37 pm

What impressed me is that he stacked up a couple really good showings in a row, which bodes well for it not just being him feasting because a defense overlooked him.

I also think it's too early to call him a too flight TE, but he's taking advantage of his opportunities and obviously is putting the work in behind the scenes to improve his game. No matter what else happens he's proven he isn't just a project or rotational player any longer, so I think that qualifies this signing as a win.

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egbertsouse's picture

October 12, 2020 at 03:50 pm

All aboard!!!! The hype train is now boarding for Tonyan Town!

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Coldworld's picture

October 12, 2020 at 05:28 pm

Hold up, they are still removing the Lazard lettering. Sarcasm is fine but the two aren’t that dissimilar and no player is proven until at least a season of consistent efficacy and after opponents focus on them. Still, both now (if healthy) would demand game planning focus, and that is the key.

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NickPerry's picture

October 13, 2020 at 05:33 am

"We might be a bit pre-mature here"

Maybe... BUT the kid has been MONEY in fantasy football the last 3 weeks!!

LOL

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Bearmeat's picture

October 12, 2020 at 01:16 pm

Am I correct in thinking that Tonyan is an UDFA following this season?

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Nordom's picture

October 12, 2020 at 01:32 pm

He'll be a RFA for the next...two seasons, I believe. So even though he's not currently signed to next year, we'll control his contract.

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Packer_Fan's picture

October 12, 2020 at 04:06 pm

We have to be realistic here. Tonyan's big game was against a bad pass defense. The Packers haven't played really good defense teams yet. With that being said, Tonyan has progressed and is playing well. He is making a jump that the Packers really needed this year at TE. With Adams returning, and when Lazard comes back, and MVS and Jones and Williams, there are lots of targets to throw to. Rodgers will be spreading the ball around and Lafleur will need to call the plays to make each game plan successful. What I am looking forward to and hoping is that each game one or two players have great games and that changes each week and as adjustments are made for defenses. For when this occurs or let's say continues each week, the Packers will be extremely hard to stop offensively. And I will call that a great story line...

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mnbadger's picture

October 13, 2020 at 08:58 pm

PackerFan, I think you're saying that if MLF and AR continue doing what they're doing, there will be plenty of opportunities to share and each of the "stars" will get their chance to shine. GPG

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Irish_Cheesehead's picture

October 12, 2020 at 06:59 pm

After watching Eric Ebron almost single-handedly lose the game for Pittsburgh on Sunday, it's clear signing a first rounder or big free-agent signee is not always the answer. Also saw Richard Rodgers in that game playing for the Eagles. Had no idea he was still in the league.

Good to see the development in Big Bob. 2012? Has it really been that long since Finley played?

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hamishheney5's picture

October 12, 2020 at 07:25 pm

This was a bad game for Eric Ebron and I am hoping that will come back better!

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Oppy's picture

October 12, 2020 at 09:07 pm

It's simply not true that MM's offense didn't value or utilize the TE.

In fact, the system became so Finley-centric at one point, that MM scaled back the emphasis on Finley the following year (It was the year Finley was lost to injury early in the season and it was a huge hit to the offense.)

There's also something to be said about where the TEs typically operate and how the ball distribution over the last many years slowly but steadily transformed.

THankfully, the QB is now back to using the entire field and taking the checkdown option more frequently. I expect we should continue to see rising numbers to the TEs. Tonyan and Sternberger certainly are promising receiving talents at the position, as well.

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Stroh's picture

October 12, 2020 at 11:45 pm

Thank God someone else realizes that the offense was originally very TE centric under McCarthy. And you're correct that he purposely scaled it back after Finley was injured. If things had gone perfectly Finley probably would have caught 80 receptions a year, along with 1200 yds and 10 TDs. McCarthy wanted a Tony Gonzales type TE production out of Finley.

After he scaled back it opened up the offense and allowed WR to become the focal point and then Jennings and Nelson became ultra-productive.

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Minniman's picture

October 12, 2020 at 11:32 pm

So it seems that the modus operandi for the Packers is to saturate a position with draft picks or UDFA then see which ones evolve with time.

They did it with CB, RB, WR and now TE

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Daren726's picture

October 14, 2020 at 05:30 am

Makes sense to me. Took big bob 3 years to make it through growing pains and injuries to get to this point. I remember the touchdowns in the Seattle and SF games two tears ago. I remember thinking he was on the verge then, just like sternberger now. And deguarra is on a similar track, but maybe coming along a little quicker if he can overcome injuries. I like all three. If they can stay healthy we might have a formidable three some if we don’t lose bob to free agency first.

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