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Packers Friday Musings: Tight end has blossomed into a position of strength

Once a position the Packers were desperately trying to upgrade, tight end has now become an area of solid depth.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It will be quieter this weekend in Titletown as the NFL playoffs kick off. But come Monday, the Green Bay Packers will be in full preparation mode for their next opponent in the divisional round. With a few thousand fans expected to cheer on the Green and Gold, the Packers will begin their quest for their first Super Bowl berth since 2010 after a 13-3 regular season.

With some Super Bowl fever in mind, today’s musings will look back at a couple of related topics to the Packers’ prior championship runs but first examine the current tight end group — a new area of true strength on the team’s roster.

After searching long and hard for pass-catching tight ends, the Packers now appear to be well-set

Since the moment Jermichael Finley sustained his career-ending injury in 2013, the Packers have been searching for a difference-making receiving tight end. They tried to find that player in individuals such as Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook, and Jimmy Graham among others without long-term success. With Robert Tonyan, Green Bay may have home-grown its best player at the position in the past seven years, but the Packers’ true strength is in numbers.

Starting with Tonyan, however, his production over the 2020 season is truly remarkable and he may be the team’s most improved player overall. While former third-rounder Jace Sternberger was poised to take a step forward this season as a sophomore, it was Tonyan who emerged as the starter and tied for the league lead among tight ends with 11 touchdowns while also gaining 586 yards receiving. After a beatdown of Atlanta early in the season, a game in which Tonyan burst onto the scene with three scores, Aaron Rodgers praised the third-year tight end for just always being in the right place. The kind of trust that Rodgers has built in him is a big reason for why the quarterback has used his tight ends more, a key contribution to this special season.

Meanwhile, Sternberger has been inactive for most of the season due to injury and, as of late, depth. Not to say that the Texas A&M product cannot still reach his high ceiling, but he has fallen behind the steady veteran Marcedes Lewis and the ascending undrafted rookie Dominique Dafney. Dafney, along with third-round pick Josiah Deguara, are setting up to be key H-back/tight end contributors for the foreseeable future once Deguara returns from injury in 2021. While Tonyan has gained the headlines, Lewis and Dafney have provided their own moments of brilliance and surprise.

Some NFL Draft pundits picked the Packers to select Cole Kmet early in this past year’s draft and that may have only further solidified the room with the rookie’s recent progression. But the team’s current collection of tight ends appears to be more than fine now and for years to come.

Billy Turner could be this year’s version of Bruce Wilkerson on a Super Bowl squad

Heading into the 1996 season, Bruce Wilkerson was behind plenty of names on Green Bay’s depth chart at tackle. But he was pressed into action at left tackle in the final game of the regular season due to injury and ineffectiveness, and eventually started in Super Bowl XXXI as the team’s most reliable player at the position.

Although he filled in for David Bakhtiari earlier in the year, Turner is following a similar path to Wilkerson in starting the final game of the regular season and being the most consistent backup left tackle option heading into the postseason. His ability to swing to left tackle also has helped create consistency elsewhere on the line, allowing Elgton Jenkins and Lucas Patrick to maintain their roles at guard and Rick Wagner to remain at the better-suited right tackle position.

The Packers may not have one of their best players available during the playoffs, but Turner has stepped up his play this year in a way that his made his lucrative 2019 free agent deal look much more appealing.

The 2019 free agent haul rivals that of Ted Thompson’s first free agency splash

If the Packers reach the Super Bowl this season, it will be due in very large part to Turner and the other free agents brought in by Brian Gutekunst two offseasons ago. Turner’s versatility, along with the pass-rushing support of Preston and Za’Darius Smith and the rising play of safety Adrian Amos, have made the spending spree a wildly successful one.

It is no secret that Green Bay did not spend much free agency cash under Ted Thompson’s leadership. But when he did spend in 2006 in his second year on the job (like Gutekunst), he hit on a pair of players. While Thompson did not ultimately choose correctly on Marquand Manuel and Ben Taylor, he struck gold with key members of the future Super Bowl XLV team, Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. Woodson’s Green Bay tenure played an instrumental role in becoming a Hall of Fame finalist, serving as a leader and playmaker for the defense. Pickett, meanwhile, earned a second deal in Green Bay after filling a key role in run defense in the team’s move to the 3-4 scheme.

The 2019 class already has an opportunity to out-duel that 2006 group with their production in their first two seasons, and it is rare to see a group of four higher-priced signings all work out the way they have. Between those free agents, the development of recent draft picks, and some shrewd undrafted signings, Gutekunst’s decision-making has quickly led to a promising rebuild of the roster in short time.