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Packers 2019 Roster Grades: Tight ends, particularly Jimmy Graham, fail to impress

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The coaching staff seemingly did no favors for this group, but there were disappointments all around.

Washington Redskins v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Each winter, Acme Packing Company breaks down the Green Bay Packers’ roster from the previous year by position to examine the team’s performance and needs in the offseason. Today we continue this series by looking at the tight end position.

For a position that was supposed to be critical in the Matt LaFleur offense, the Green Bay Packers sure got little production out of their tight end group in 2019. The position featured a high-priced veteran, a low-priced veteran, and a pair of young up-and-coming players, but virtually all of them disappointed in one way or another, starting with the guy at the top of the depth chart.

Starter: Jimmy Graham

16 games played, 10 starts
60 targets, 38 receptions, 447 yards (11.8 YPR), 3 touchdowns

Graham spent the 2019 season as the top tight end in the NFL in terms of salary cap hit, passing the ChiefsTravis Kelce by almost $2 million. For that investment, Graham finished 18th among tight ends in receiving yards. That alone illustrates how poor an investment that big contract is.

Need more stats to back this up? Graham finished 24th among tight ends in receiving DVOA and 23rd in DYAR. The one stat where he led the league was in in defensive pass interference penalties drawn, getting three flags for 66 yards. Graham also was partially responsible for the Packers’ ugly offensive start in week 17 in Detroit, dropping a perfectly-thrown deep pass up the middle from Aaron Rodgers on the offense’s first snap. That should have jump-started the team, but set an ugly tone that required a frantic comeback late in the game to clinch a first-round bye.

That said, Graham showed some small signs of improvement in his run-blocking. Interestingly, he also averaged more yards after the catch (6.4 yards per reception) than before the catch (5.4). Still, Graham’s total yards per target was an ugly 7.5, a far cry from the 8.2 mark he averaged in his first seven seasons from 2010 to 2016.

As such, expect the Packers to cut Graham loose this offseason, freeing up $8 million in salary cap space for 2020.

Backups

Marcedes Lewis

16 games played, 11 starts
19 targets, 15 receptions, 156 yards (10.4 YPR), 1 TD

With a new coaching staff in town, Lewis came back for another go in Green Bay and became the team’s primary blocking tight end. He played 45 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps in 2019 after taking the field on just 18 percent under Mike McCarthy the year prior. Lewis was hardly a star player, but he continues to be useful as a blocker and on the occasional leak pass out of the backfield — like Graham, he averaged more YAC per reception (5.5) than air yards (4.9).

Robert Tonyan

11 games played, 1 start
15 targets, 10 receptions, 100 yards (10 YPR), 1 TD

Behind the veterans, fans and coaches alike expected a breakout season from Tonyan in his second full NFL season. However, right as it seemed that he was on that verge, he suffered a hip injury that cost him several games and left the Packers to rely on the veterans instead. Like in 2018, Tonyan ended up being more of a factor on special teams than on offense, though he did play about three times as many snaps on offense as he did a year ago. But the breakout now seems less likely than it did at this time last year.

Jace Sternberger

6 games played, 1 start
No regular season stats
Postseason stats: 2 games, 2 targets, 2 receptions, 13 yards, 1 TD

The Packers’ third-round draft pick in 2019, the expectations for Sternberger were largely low for his rookie year. After all, tight ends tend to take some time to develop, and rarely make a major impact in their first seasons. For Sternberger, though, much of that impact was further delayed by an injury he suffered in the final preseason game, which landed him on injured reserve for the first half of the season.

However, upon his return he gradually worked his way into more playing time, topping out with 28 snaps on offense in the Packers’ Divisional Playoff victory over Seattle. His ability to line up on the line, in the slot, or as a fullback made him particularly useful, and the coaching staff raved about his development down the stretch. While his rookie season was quiet, he will be tasked with a much larger role in 2020.


Overall Grade: D-plus

Given the lofty expectations for the tight ends in LaFleur’s offense and the significant money that Graham accounted for on the cap, the overall return from this group was extremely disappointing. The Packers will surely look to make some changes in the offseason, particularly with Sternberger appearing ready to make a jump.

Graham continued to demonstrate that the massive contract the Packers gave him in 2018 was a mistake. Look for his departure sooner rather than later, followed by a possible free agent signing or draft pick in the spring.