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Packers 2019 Free Agent TEs: Another offseason of expected upheaval

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Even with Jimmy Graham expected back, Green Bay heads into yet another offseason wondering how to fill the hole at tight end.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Lance Kendricks was supposed to bring some juice to the tight end room, but mostly just brought slippery hands.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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 2018 season. Today, we examine the tight end position heading into free agency.

Ever since Jermichael Finley’s unfortunate, career-ending neck injury, the Green Bay Packers have been a revolving door of sub-standard tight end play. After attempting to make do with mid-round picks and undrafted free agents, in 2016 Ted Thompson signed Jared Cook who was excellent in an injury-shortened season. His agent botched a potential return and the Packers signed Martellus Bennett while Cook’s agent tried unsuccessfully to get a better offer than the one Green Bay made.

How did that go? In the words of Pete Campbell, “Not great, Bob.” Last offseason, it was Jimmy Graham, making the third consecutive spring the front office took a big swing with a free-agent tight end. They also signed Marcedes Lewis, added Robert Tonyan after a late-2017 stint on the practice squad and kept Lance Kendricks from the Bennett offseason. It was supposed to be the great fortification of the position the team needed.

Narrator: It wasn’t.

Lance Kendricks

NFL Experience: 8 years
FA Status: Unrestricted free agent
Expiring Contract: 2 years, $4 million
2017 Stats: 16 games, 25 targets, 19 catches, 170 yards, 1 TD

When Kendricks joined the Packers in 2017, he was to be the move tight end to complement Bennett’s dual abilities as a blocker and receiver. Instead, he caught just 18 passes, never became part of the offense even after Bennett’s departure, and struggled overall with Brett Hundley at quarterback.

Having Aaron Rodgers didn’t improve things much for him in 2018. Some dreadful drops gave way to a second half of the season in which Kendricks began to find a meaningful role as a dump off tight end and security blanket.

Kendricks’ blocking isn’t horrid, but he’s not good enough next to Jimmy Graham to make up for Graham’s deficiencies, nor is he so dynamic as a pass catcher a team can just live with that. Graham is coming back, which means Kendricks can’t be.

Marcedes Lewis

NFL Experience: 13 years
FA Status: Unrestricted free agent
Expiring Contract: 1 year, $2.1 million
2017 Stats: 16 games play, 4 targets, 3 catches, 39 yards

This one is on McCarthy. One of the best blocking tight ends in football? Nah, Graham will be fine there. A 6-foot-7 monster who caught five touchdowns a year ago? Meh, throw it to him ... like whenever.

What was the plan here? How did McCarthy, Philbin, et al look at this player and think, “We can’t use him?” Lewis played just under 18% pf snaps last season and was an afterthought in both phases of the offense. Why? How? For all the consternation about Aaron Jones not getting enough touches, the lack of Lewis in this offense may have been equally puzzling given how poorly Graham and Kendricks played most of last season.

Free agency is difficult to predict. Lewis’ old coordinator in Jacksonville will be Matt LaFleur’s OC in a scheme that requires a quality blocking tight end, so there’s reason to think Lewis could be back. He also flamed Mike McCarthy in an interview with Martellus Bennett and admitted Rodgers just calls whatever plays he wants. Is that a betrayal of the team’s confidence to tell tales out of school? And would it prevent the front office from bringing back a player who could still help this team?

Robert Tonyan

NFL Experience: 1 year
FA Status: Exclusive rights free agent
Expiring Contract: 1 years, $480,000
2017 Stats: 16 games played, 6 targets, 4 catches, 77 yards, 1 touchdown

The amount of Big Bob stock being held on Packers Twitter is enough to cause a run on the banks in the near future and it’s not difficult to see why. The 54-yard bomb he caught against the Seahawks (Rodgers said he thought he was throwing to Graham) was the biggest play a tight end has made for the Packers since Richard Rodgers caught the Hail Mary against the Lions.

Tonyan showed excellent receiving skills in preseason, along with body control and athleticism as a former college receiver. He has the frame to get better as a blocker, something he must do if he wants more playing time and there’s an enormous opportunity in front of him to do grab those snaps.

But for now, he’s Tight End Janis, a player with estimable promise who has limited regular season success to go with excellent preseason production. Relying on him to be the TE2 for a team hoping to compete for a Super Bowl is a tough ask, but he could be a useful player down the line if he keeps progressing.

Given his status as a ERFA, the Packers will almost certainly offer him the one-year tender, which he can either accept or sit out. Even if the Packers draft a tight end this spring, Tonyan will have a huge advantage at a position notorious for slow starts due to the learning curve. We will learn in 2019 if Tonyan is Janis 2.0 or something more.