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Tight ends can be valuable, and Robert Tonyan has been extremely so in 2020

Through four games, only one team has received more value from their tight ends than the Packers.

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Big Bob Tonyan. You can’t help but wonder whether having Jimmy Graham on the Green Bay Packers' roster last season was doubly bad, first for having Jimmy Graham on the roster, but second for denying us some Big Bob greatness just a bit earlier.

Probably not on that last part, as the offense is so much different, and so much better than last year, and there was likely some necessary trust and chemistry gained by playing that season as it was. Jimmy Graham was targeted a ton last season and I kept wondering why. It seemed like a mismatch of talent and scheme, and every time Jimmy would completely whiff on a block (which just isn’t his thing) I wondered if this could ever work. In retrospect it looks like a work of genius.

Robert Tonyan won’t ever be a great blocker, but unlike Graham, he is a willing one, and sometimes that’s good enough. Being a willing blocker, it turns out, is the key to being a good receiver in this offense. Not much has changed talent-wise in 2020 other than Graham’s departure, but Bob Tonyan’s willingness to engage in occasionally dirty business (and his much greater ability to split out wide) has gotten him on the field to great effect. Jace Sternberger is making progress week after week, and if he continues to improve, the 1-2 punch at the position will be impressive.

Marcedes Lewis, even in his dotage, is still a Mack truck as a blocker, and wins with surprise when he isn’t blocking. The combination has made the Packers the second best tight end group in the NFL behind only the Indianapolis Colts, led by Mo Alie-Cox.

Tight End Units by Team

Player Tm Rec Tgt Yds Y/R TD Ctch% Y/Tgt
Player Tm Rec Tgt Yds Y/R TD Ctch% Y/Tgt
Indianapolis Tes IND 17 24 271 15.94 2 0.71 11.29
Green Bay Tes GNB 19 24 243 12.79 6 0.79 10.13
Rams Tes LAR 18 21 211 11.72 3 0.86 10.05
Houston Tes Hou 20 25 231 11.55 2 0.8 9.24
Detroit Tes DET 19 26 239 12.58 3 0.73 9.19
Chargers Tes LAC 20 30 274 13.7 1 0.67 9.13
San Francisco Tes SFO 35 41 366 10.46 3 0.85 8.93
Tennessee TES TEN 22 29 248 11.27 4 0.76 8.55
Kansas City Tes KAN 25 36 302 12.08 2 0.69 8.39
Dallas Tes DAL 23 35 289 12.57 2 0.66 8.26
Miami Tes MIA 17 29 231 13.59 2 0.59 7.97
New Orleans Tes NOR 14 22 171 12.21 1 0.64 7.77
Baltimore Tes BAL 17 26 194 11.41 5 0.65 7.46
Pittsburgh Tes PIT 14 21 154 11 1 0.67 7.33
Cincinatti Tes CIN 22 29 212 9.64 1 0.76 7.31
Atlanta Tes ATL 14 24 168 12 2 0.58 7
Las Vegas TEs LVR 37 48 334 9.03 3 0.77 6.96
Arizona Tes ARI 12 18 124 10.33 1 0.67 6.89
Tampa Bay Tes TAM 21 35 237 11.29 3 0.6 6.77
Cleveland Tes CLE 22 31 205 9.32 3 0.71 6.61
Jacksonville Tes JAX 17 27 172 10.12 1 0.63 6.37
Philadelphia Tes PHI 37 53 327 8.84 2 0.7 6.17
Buffalo Tes BUF 12 19 116 9.67 4 0.63 6.11
Denver Tes DEN 23 37 225 9.78 2 0.62 6.08
Seattle Tes SEA 23 28 167 7.26 2 0.82 5.96
Minnesota Tes MIN 8 14 80 10 1 0.57 5.71
New England Tes NWE 3 8 44 14.67 0 0.38 5.5
Chicago Tes CHI 19 33 169 8.89 3 0.58 5.12
Carolina Tes CAR 8 12 59 7.38 1 0.67 4.92
New York Giant Tes NYG 24 39 183 7.63 0 0.62 4.69
Washington Tes WAS 14 29 104 7.43 1 0.48 3.59
New York Jets Tes NYJ 14 24 84 6 0 0.58 3.5

Philip Rivers has always targeted his tight ends, so that’s not surprising. Aaron Rodgers has too, as Graham and underwhelming players like Richard Rodgers have seen plenty of targets. They’ve just rarely been very good outside of Jermichael Finley or Jared Cook. Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan love their big guys catching passes, and it’s worth noting they may know something we all don’t. Pro Football Focus has been working on a football WAR stat (Wins Above Replacement) for a while, and for a time last year, George Kittle of the 49ers was the most valuable non-quarterback in football. That was a surprising revelation because tight ends are usually considered luxury players on offense, preceived to be behind receivers and offensive linemen (certainly tacklers, at least) in terms of value. But given their dual role as blockers and receivers, and the flexibility that grants a creative team, it makes a lot of sense. After all, does anyone doubt George Kittle’s value?

The Packers have also gotten great efficiency from their big guys in this early season, where Allen Lazard, an “almost tight end” and outstanding blocker in his own right, ranks 3rd in DVOA among receivers. Driving the point home, Big Bob Tonyan is currently first among tight ends in DVOA, and he leads a group that’s quietly dominating football.

The 49ers have been good at finding these little pockets of extreme efficiency with their big dudes. In addition to Kittle, fullback Kyle Juszczyk was the 2nd best pass catching running back last season. The talk of the NFL when LaFleur was hired was the McVay revolution. It’s never materialized, and it’s sort of petering out. The Shanahan/LaFleur Revolution of Monsters is upon us. Look on it, and cower in fear.