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Robert Tonyan’s mad hands and reversion to the mean

Big Bob catches everything. What this post presupposes is, what if he didn’t?

Syndication: PackersNews Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wis

(Robert Tonyan, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Allen Lazard all had some form of outlier performance last season. We’ll be running three companion pieces looking at whether or not these performances are sustainable, and the consequences if they’re not.)

Subject: Big Bob Tonyan

Outlier: Catch Percentage

Robert Tonyan is a weird player and his penchant to never ever drop a ball is well-established. But it’s worth pointing out just how incredible Big Bob’s hands really are and what might happen to his production if he happens to have a more average season with his hands.

To kick things off, just look at this nonsense. I’ve removed RBs from this chart because they have artificially high Catch% numbers due to having a shorter average depth of target, but even if you leave them in, Tonyan is still first in catch rate! Carolina running back Mike Davis is second with an 84.3% catch rate, but Davis only averaged 6.32 yards per catch compared to Tonyan’s 11.27. Curtis Samuel, the second-best non-RB, is almost 9 percentage points below Tonyan. Samuel is as close to Tonyan as he is to 33rd ranked Corey Davis at 70.7%.

So yes, Tonyan’s hands are bonkers, which is a good thing because he’s not great in some other areas. For instance, per NextGenStats, only Austin Hooper was worse at generating YAC. Once Tonyan encounters a defender, it’s kind of over for him, and it’s not like tight ends never generate YAC. George Kittle was 3rd in the league, and Tyler Higbee was top ten.

But it doesn’t matter, because Tonyan gets good separation, and simply never drops anything.

We frequently talk about Matt LaFleur’s genius in scheming guys open, and in many ways, Tonyan is that genius personified. Davante Adams is often stuck doing the dirty work on bubble screens and quick hitters, drawing extra coverage, and opening things up for everyone else. Adams’ presence ensures that these players get that easier coverage and extra separation, which is absolutely crucial from a personnel perspective.

Think of it this way: The Packers could invest in a bunch of receivers like Adams, who can create easy separation off the line, win 1-on-1 matchups, exploit the entire route tree, etc. That’s expensive. Instead, you have Adams do the job for everyone. What you get is Robert Tonyan running open fairly frequently and the other-worldly accuracy of Rodgers delivering the ball. All you need is a guy who can catch the ball every single time. If you’re only looking for a single trait, it’s much easier to find, especially when not paired with a need for YAC or elite blocking, or, you know, most of the other things tight ends do.

This is not a knock on Tonyan. He’s perfect in this role and, unfortunately for him, he probably would not be nearly as valuable to most other teams. Consider what a slight decline in catch% would result in. Tonyan’s hallmark last year was efficiency, where he dominated DVOA based primarily on that lofty Catch%. However, his raw totals were pretty pedestrian which led to injustices like Evan Engram making the Pro Bowl.

The league-average tight end caught about 70.3% of targets last year. Had Tonyan pulled in a league-average number of his targets, he would have had 486 yards instead of 586, he would have had only 43 receptions instead of 52, and would likely have lost something like 3 TDs. It also would have cost the Packers approximately 9 first downs. You start to look a lot less like Bob Tonyan and a lot more like Kyle Rudolph.

That’s not likely to happen, of course. Bob has good hands and won’t crash to league-average, but it’s worth keeping in mind because he will likely to be at least somewhat worse this year (likely around Curtis Samuel’s 79.4%). Furthermore, if he would be paired with a worse, less accurate QB in the future — say in 2022 — well, Tonyan might become pedestrian pretty quickly. However, with Rodgers and LaFleur around this year, he should be fine.