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.
The Green Bay Packers entered the year expecting a step forward from Jace Sternberger and hoping that Bob Tonyan could step up in a pinch. Given that they also brought back veteran Marcedes Lewis to provide depth, it was a bit surprising when the team eschewed the amazing crop of potential wide receivers for an H-back out of Cincinnati in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft. The Josiah Deguara pick and his subsequent injury would drive the other major tight end acquisitions on the season, as the Packers cornered the market on short tight ends with athletic upside.
In retrospect, it should not have been that surprising as the LaFleur offense loves its tight ends and hybrid fullbacks, and he’s been searching for a good one ever since Danny Vitale graced us with his presence last year. But let’s start with old reliable. Here’s a look at the three new arrivals, and one re-signed old friend at Tight End in 2020.
How acquired: Unrestricted free agent signing
Contract: 1 year, $2.25 million
Stats: 10 receptions on 17 targets (58.8% catch rate), 107 yards (10.7 yards/reception), 3 touchdowns
Lewis has played 15 seasons in the NFL, earned in excess of $52 million, and reigns as the greatest tight end in Jacksonville Jaguars history. He’s now 36 years old and can do whatever he wants, so why not take a shot at a ring behind Aaron Rodgers and the Packers? Lewis is slow but sure-handed as a receiver, and while he used to average something like 13 yards per reception, in his dotage that number is going to be capped around 11. Lewis averaged 10.7 yards per reception this season, and given just how open he routinely was, the fact that this number isn’t higher is a testament to his extreme lack of speed.
But who cares about Marcedes the receiver? Marcedes is here to lay out linebackers and eliminate pass rushers while Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams scamper by untouched. Age has impacted his speed, but the power and agility are still good and when it comes to blocking, Lewis is among the best ever at his position. He was a positive contributor this year in 12 and jumbo personnel formations, and is debatably the best power run blocker on the team. When David Bakhtiari was lost for the season, Lewis became even more important, and his assistance was critical in ensuring that the team didn’t feel the loss as much as it could have.
Lewis is a free agent, but he can likely be had on a reasonable one-year deal until he decides to hang up the cleats. Given the style of offense the Packers run, they would be foolish not to make an offer.
How acquired: Selected in the 3rd round (94th overall) of the 2020 NFL draft.
Contract: Signed to a 4 year, $4,547,766 contract with $867,468 guaranteed.
Stats: 1 receptions on 2 targets, 12 yards
Many, myself included, felt that Deguara was wildly overdrafted and would likely have been available as late as the fifth, but upon watching more of comparable players like Danny Vitale, Kyle Juszczyk, John Lovett, and Dominique Dafney, I kind of get it.
The NFL hasn’t really figured out this position yet, mostly because only the 49ers and Packers really care about it, and prospects tend to be very much of the Vitale/Lovett type: Outstanding athletes, too short for conventional tight end or wide receiver roles, who wind up at smaller schools being used in creative ways. All would likely have been perfectly conventional fullbacks a decade ago, but conventional fullbacks have gone extinct in the NFL and that’s no way forward for a college player.
One of the weird coincidences of Juszczyk, Vitale, and Lovett is that they all attended prestigious academic institutions, with Juszczyk and Lovett playing in the Ivy at Harvard and Princeton, respectively, and Vitale plying his skills for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. It’s easy enough to look at the athletic profiles for Juszczyk, Vitale, and Lovett, and see a pattern, but here, RAS can lead us astray.
Juszczyk is one of the most valuable FB/H-back hybrid players, and really, one of the most valuable skill position players in the league, but it’s not because he overwhelms you with his athleticism. He’s an advanced route runner who always finds the sticks, never drops a dump-off, and can burn a linebacker on a wheel if called upon to do so, which leads us to Deguara.
Deguara was used at Cincinnati, definitively a non-Ivy League school, much like a standard in-line tight end, and his college tape shows why. He was a dynamic playmaker down the field, and excelled at the entire route tree. If he were 3 inches taller, he likely would have been a coveted standard tight end prospect, but with his height, his RAS is a mere 6.66. Move him to the FB spot though, and now you have something as he jumps to an elite 8.52. While attempts to turn Vitale and Lovett into nuanced route-runners failed, Deguara showed why he was different in his limited playing time. His season was cut short by a torn ACL, but before it was, he showed that unique ability as a more advanced receiver and displayed excellent power when blocking or powering over a poor overmatched corner.
Projecting Deguara’s future is still purely speculative, and you never can tell how a player will recover from an ACL, but I think Green Bay has the right idea here. Creating receiving threats from unusual positions is what the LaFleur/Shanahan system is all about, and “short, fast, almost tight ends” is an untapped and relatively cheap archetype to target.
Deguara gets an incomplete for now, but there is real potential.
How Acquired: Claimed off waivers
Contract: 2 year, $1,390,000 contract.
Stats: 3 rushes, 6 yards
The former Princeton quarterback succeeded in the Ivy League through elite athletic ability and versatility. His RAS and pedigree scream Kyle Juszczyk as a comp, but unfortunately Lovett wasn’t even able to crack Danny Vitale status. The most notable thing about his stat line is the complete lack of targets. Lovett was used primarily as a traditional lead blocker and short yardage back a la John Kuhn, but in the LaFleur offense, the fullback has to catch passes, and Lovett didn’t.
Aside from being a nonfactor as even a dump-off, Lovett had several high-profile missed blocks — the kind you can see in real time during the broadcast — that couldn’t have made his coaches happy. Players like Lovett sometimes miss out on developing technique at the college level. He was generally the best athlete on the field, and when that happens it’s basically a cheat. Scouting such players is difficult because it’s tough to project if they’ll ever develop soft skills. Lovett is still very much a work in progress.
He tore his ACL in November and was placed on IR, and when/if he does return, some additional time on a practice squad would serve him well.
How Acquired: Signed to the practice squad in October as a free agent, elevated to the active roster on December 5th
Contract: Dafney signed a 2 year, $1,390,000 contract.
Stats: 2 receptions on 2 targets, 22 yards, 1 TD
In the quest to replace Deguara, Dafney was the most successful. His one touchdown catch was a thing of beauty, and he’s quick to get himself out into the pattern. Dafney’s quickness and ability get himself downfield distinguished him from Lovett, who mostly stuck to the line of scrimmage. Moreover, Dafney’s blocking was also better, and he was up to the task of engaging with bigger defenders routinely.
It’s hard to make sweeping judgements about a player based on small sample sizes, but Dafney has a history as a wide receiver, which he played as a freshman in community college, before moving to Iowa as a preferred walk-on. While he mostly played special teams at Iowa, a former wide receiver gaining experience in one of the best tight end factories in college football makes for an intriguing prospect, and Dafney flashed enough to warrant keeping him around.
He very nearly hauled in a Rodgers free play in the playoffs which would have had him on everyone’s radar, but there’s talent here.