Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. Today, we examine the tight ends.
Matt LaFleur runs a version of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and in the Shanahan offense, tight end may be the single most important position. In San Francisco, George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk are among the most efficient, and most unique players in the league. Kittle is likely the best pure tight end in football, matching outstanding power blocking with receiving chops matched only by Travis Kelce. Juszczyk is always among the most efficient pass catchers in the league for a “running back,” and a crushing blocker in his own right.
The Green Bay Packers have attempted to recreate this personnel group with varying levels of success. Would-be Juszczyks have mostly flamed out, while the skills of George Kittle are adequately replicated, though not a single player. While the Packer tight ends, as a unit, posses many useful skills, there is still room for improvement as they are heavy on specialization, and light on versatility.
Robert “Big Bob” Tonyan
52 receptions on 59 targets (88.1% catch rate)
586 yards (11.3 yards/reception), 11 touchdowns
243 DYAR (2nd in NFL), +53.4% DVOA (1st out of 87 qualifiers)
There were not many, or really any, tight ends better than Big Bob as a receiver in 2020. On a per play basis, he blew away the field based on an absurd catch rate and a tendency to find the end zone. Tonyan wasn’t actually targeted that much, ranking 4th on the team, but he caught so many balls that he ranked 2nd in receptions, ahead of MVS and Aaron Jones.
It’s hard to give Tonyan anything other than an A based solely on production, and according to Aaron Schatz on the Off the Charts podcast, Tonyan’s lofty DVOA and 2nd place DYAR would have led any season since 2010. Tonyan’s downfield speed and sure hands made him the perfect go-to on play-action and designed big plays. As a receiver based purely on his contributions to the 2020 team, he was outstanding.
All of that said, there are some reasons to be skeptical of Tonyan going forward. Tonyan is one of the worst tight ends in the league at producing yards after catch, and most of his production occurred strictly through the air. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but it’s fair to wonder if he can maintain this level of production without contributing more on his own. It’s also worth wondering about that lofty catch rate, as even a small dip would result in a big hit to his overall efficiency. 11.1 yards per reception won’t blow anyone away, and to be efficient with that number, you need to catch almost everything.
Compounding all of this is the fact that Tonyan isn’t a great blocker. He’s a willing blocker, and he generally gets himself in good position, but he will always struggle to take on or slow down defensive ends and edge rushers. One of the most important things about George Kittle is his ability to create mismatches, either by overwhelming smaller defenders in the power running game or beating linebackers when the 49ers flip to a passing play. Tonyan simply doesn’t offer that. He’s out there to maybe chip on a defender, but mostly to catch medium throws off of play action.
Tonyan is useful, and it’s hard to imagine anyone using him better than Green Bay did in 2020, but he’s also limited, and there’s a good chance that 2020 will go down as the best season of his career.
10 receptions on 17 targets (58.8% catch rate)
107 yards (10.7 yards/reception), 3 touchdowns
13 DYAR, +3.2% DVOA
The blocking yin to Tonyan’s receiving yang, Lewis is the functional equivalent of having an extra tackle out there, and a pretty good one at that. He’s been an elite blocker for his entire lengthy career, and on any given Green Bay power run, it’s likely that Lewis is called on for a key block and executes it.
The problem is, of course, that Lewis is probably the NFL’s slowest skill position player. Even in his youth he was never particularly fast, but now 36 years old, having just completed his 15th season, he’s almost comically slow. It’s a shame, because Lewis frequently finds himself wide open on passing plays due to a combination of personnel — Lewis often sees base or goal line fronts — and surprise, as no one really expects him to catch passes.
If Lewis were slightly faster, he would be a real weapon, able to punish defenses for going heavy. Instead, he’s just not dangerous enough to capitalize on his size, and outstanding blocking ability. He has good hands, and he’ll get what he’s thrown, but he’s strictly a gimmick player and a run-down specialist at this point in his career. Like Tonyan, he’s useful but limited, and if nothing else, the duo make perfect complements.
12 receptions on 15 targets (80% catch rate)
114 yards (9.5 yards/reception), 1 touchdown
8 DYAR, +0.7% DVOA
Rookie tight ends generally don’t make much of an impact, and Sternberger’s injury-plagued 2019 season can be forgiven as a result, but the lack of any kind of breakout in 2020 is concerning. Sternberger was a relatively high pick as the Packers used a 3rd-rounder on him, hoping he would eventually bring a balance of blocking and receiving lacking in Tonyan and Lewis. Unfortunately, Sternberger has been inferior to Tonyan as a blocker and Lewis as a receiver. That is not ideal.
Sternberger had a weird college career, starting at Kansas and transferring to Texas A&M for his junior season, and it’s worth wondering if he’s simply missed out on too much development by not playing. Between sitting out 2017 in college, injuries and ineffectiveness as a rookie, and another round of injuries including a concussion in 2020, Sternberger has barely played football.
That’s a problem for a player without a great athletic profile, and without the more mature skillset you would expect from an older prospect, there’s a good chance we’re looking at a bust. Third year breakouts are common among tight ends and it’s not worth completely writing him off yet, but he should have flashed more by now. If they go back to the tight end well in the draft, don’t be surprised.
1 receptions on 2 targets (50% catch rate)
We didn’t get to see much of the rookie h-back before he tore his ACL in week 4, but if nothing else, he managed to show some promise in plowing over defenders and laying a few crushing blocks. Deguara is a rare player type valued by only a few teams as a shorter tight end likely do a good chunk of work out of the backfield, but he has an intriguing skill set, and managed to do a lot of damage on medium and deep routes in college. It’s easy to imaging LaFleur opening up an entire unused section of the playbook assuming he makes a full recovery.
2 receptions on 2 targets (100% catch rate)
22 yards, 1 TD
We saw some of the playbook open for Dafney, another tweener fullback/TE with more value to Green Bay than just about anywhere else. Dafney started college football as a receiver, transferred twice including a stint at the tight end factory that is Iowa as a preferred walk-on, and finished at Indiana State as a dynamic, pass-catching fullback. LaFleur loves those guys.
Dafney did a nice job capitalizing on his limited opportunities, and was more than adequate as a blocker. At this point in his career he likely is what he is, but if they decide to keep him around as Deguara insurance and his eventual backup, don’t be surprised.
3 Rushes, 6 Yards, 0 Targets
The Princeton grad and former quarterback possesses intriguing athleticism, but it never showed up on the field, and he was, unfortunately, lost to a torn ACL, ending his season. Lovett was claimed on waivers from the Chiefs, and there was purportedly interest from San Francisco as well.
Lovett’s metrics and experience should have allowed him to show something in the passing game, but he never received a target and missed a few key blocks when used as a proper fullback. While an injury formally ended his season, it’s possible that Dominique Dafney may have passed him eventually anyway.
Overall Grade: B+
While the tight ends lacked depth as a unit, the stellar efficiency from Tonyan, and stellar blocking from Lewis was enough to propel them to a B+ on the year. Tonyan’s performance in particular should go down as one of the best in team history, as Rodgers hasn’t had such a reliable big target since at least Jared Cook’s truncated season. Tonyan should provide a solid floor at the receiving tight end position going forward as long as he remains with the team, while the front office attempts to build depth and find a few well-rounded talents for their preferred offense.