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Packers 2021 Roster Preview: Robert Tonyan leads an intriguing group of specialist TEs

But can Josiah Deguara and Jace Sternberger grow into impact players?

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers report for training camp on July 27th, with the team’s first practice coming the next day. In the week leading up to camp, Acme Packing Company will break down the Packers’ 90-man roster and give our predictions for who will make the initial 53 at the end of camp. Seven APC contributors submitted their 53-man predictions, and we have combined those picks into our annual consolidated prediction.

Our analysis of the Packers’ 90-man roster carries on with a look at the tight end position, where familiar faces are returning and a bevy of young players will attempt to make an impact.

TEs on the 90-man roster

Robert Tonyan

NFL Experience: 4th season
2020 Stats (16 games): 59 targets, 52 receptions (88.1%), 586 yards, 11 TDs, 11.3 Y/R, 9.9 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $1,504,800

By advanced metrics, Tonyan was almost certainly the most efficient tight end in the history of the franchise last year. He led the league in DVOA by a healthy margin over Darren Fells and Travis Kelce, and finished 2nd in DYAR with 242, though that number would have led the league in any other season over the past decade.

When we talk about Matt LaFleur’s system making the offense better, we’re talking about Tonyan. He’s a good athlete, but he really only gets what’s called for him, as his YAC production is among the league’s worst. That doesn’t matter a bit, as the plays called for Big Bob are among the most creative infootball, and Tonyan’s greatest talent - catching almost every target that comes his way - means that those plays never go to waste. He’s back on a one year deal (plus some void years) and hopefully he can show that 2020 wasn’t just a fluke.

Marcedes Lewis

NFL Experience: 13th season
2020 Stats (15 games): 17 targets, 10 receptions (58.8%), 107 yards, 3 TDs, 10.7 Y/R, 6.3 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $2,342,640

The old saying about Leroy Hoard was that if you needed one yard, he would get you three, and if you needed five yards, he would get you three. Lewis is similar in that if you need outstanding blocking from your tight end, he’ll give you outstanding blocking, and if you need a guy to go out and snag a pass, he’ll give you outstanding blocking.

Lewis is nearing the end of his career, but as long as his body holds up, he remains one of the league’s elite blocking tight ends. The Packer offense leans on pass-catchers who are willing and able to block, and the only question with Lewis is whether he can still adequately serve in the pass catcher role, even when he’s wide open. His catch percentage plummeted to 58.8% last season, and at some point, using deception to spring the slowest skill position player in the league will stop paying dividends. Still, he’s a crucial cog in the running game, and it’s not as if there’s another great blocking tight end on the roster.

Josiah Deguara

NFL Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats (2 games): 2 targets, 1 receptions (50%), 12 yards, 0 TDs, 12 Y/R, 6 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $1,033,583

DeGuara is of a type coveted exclusively by the Packers, that being the very short, very light tight/end fullback hybrid along the lines of Kyle Juszczyk.

Deguara flashed a few nifty moves before he was lost for the season with an ACL tear, which is a shame as he’s one of their more intriguing prospects. At Cincinnati, Deguara was a dangerous downfield threat atypical of a player of his size, and given that he was up to the task of laying a helmet on defenders as a lead blocker, it’s easy to imagine how he could be extremely dangerous in LaFleur’s offense.

The big question mark with Deguara is his route-running. It’s easy enough to find a guy who looks like Kyle Juszczyk, but it’s quite another to find one with the same level of smarts, soft skills, and route running that consistently lands Juszczyk in the top 10 DVOA of receiving running backs. After all, the Packers have cycled through guys like John Lovett and Danny Vitale with little to show for it. Deguara’s experience with the deep ball may be just what the position needs, and if he can finally be the player he was drafted to be, he opens up an entirely new section of the playbook.

Dominique Dafney

NFL Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats (5 games): 2 targets, 2 receptions (100%), 26 yards, 1 TDs, 13 Y/R, 13 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $780,000

If Deguara doesn’t work out for whatever reason, keep your eye on Dafney. He was signed to the practice squad prior to the 2020 season after failing to catch on with the Colts, and was promoted to the active roster late in the year. He put some good work on tape in his limited snaps, including a touchdown catch against the Bears in week 17, and he seemed to hold up reasonably well in the trenches.

Dafney bounced around schools from Iowa Western Community College, to Iowa, before landing at Indiana State, and he bounced around positions from wide receiver, to tight end, to fullback. For the Packers he played essentially the same role as Deguara as the H-Back style “F” tight end, and did it about as well as Deguara in a small sample size.

Dafney is also, if anything, a superior athlete to Deguara with a 9.62 RAS (based on his Pro Day metrics), which is worth keeping in mind, as freely available talent usually isn’t as fast or shifty as Dafney. He’s more of a project based on all of his collegiate movement and position-switching, but he’s off to a good start. The Packers love guys like Dafney, and if he manages to show some improvement with soft skills in camp, don’t be surprised if he sticks around.

Isaac Nauta

NFL Experience: 3rd season
2020 Stats (7 games): 2 targets, 1 receptions (50%), 3 yards, 0 TDs, 3 Y/R, 1.5 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $850,000

If there is a player archetype that I dislike, this is it. Nauta was a five star recruit out of high school, and his Wikipedia entry that was definitely not written by Nauta reads as follows:

“Considered by far the best true freshman tight end in the country, Nauta finished the season with 353 yards on 27 catches as he developed early chemistry with fellow true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. Nauta was a key weapon for the Georgia passing game, lining up on the outside and in the slot quite a bit as he dwarfed the rest of the nation’s true freshman tight ends statistically”

But Nauta struggled to put up anything other than pedestrian numbers during his Georgia career, and a disastrous combine saw him fall to the 7th round, where the Lions took a chance on him. Detroit tried to find him a home at either TE or FB, but it was not to be as he was waived in December of last season. The Packers added him to the practice squad shortly thereafter, and signed him to a reserve deal for this season. The fallen “highly touted” rarely make it back, and if Nauta gets a chance, he’ll have to earn it in the trenches of special teams, and likely, in the FB/H-Back role.

Bronson Kaufusi

NFL Experience: 3rd season
2020 Stats (3.5 games): 3 tackles, 0.5 sacks
2021 Cap Hit: $920,000

Kaufusi is a converted defensive end, originally drafted in the 3rd round by the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately, he broke his ankle in August of his rookie year, and hasn’t been the same player since. After being released by Baltimore he caught on with the Jets, where New York attempted a position switch to tight end after Kaufusi gave the defense fits in practice.

Kaufusi is trying to rebuild his career as a 29-year-old learning a new, complicated position on a team with a deep roster of tight ends. That said, it’s easy to look at his RAS card, see the size and agility, and project exactly how this might work.

Kaufusi is a longshot at this point, but when you’re scouting tight ends, you often look for basketball player types, who have size, agility, and make sharp cuts on a dime. It’s not that dissimilar from what defensive ends do, and it’s not a terrible idea.

Suspended: Jace Sternberger

NFL Experience: 3rd season
2020 Stats (12 games): 15 targets, 12 receptions (80%), 114 yards, 1 TDs, 9.5 Y/R, 7.6 Y/T
2021 Cap Hit: $1,131,632

Jace Sternberger is in a bad place. On a personal level, he’s suspended for the first two games of the season after falling asleep behind the wheel due to a combination of antidepressants and alcohol. This was extremely dangerous, and Sternberger is lucky he did not hurt anyone, but it’s also not a good sign for the mental health of the former 3rd rounder.

Sternberger is also in a bad place roster-wise. He’s still inexpensive which may keep him around, but he’s spent much of his time on the Packers either injured, or failing to produce. Sternberger isn’t much of a blocker, and really needs to show up as a dangerous receiver to add value. That hasn’t happened, and as Tonyan has ascended, Sternberger’s opportunities have declined. He’s looking like a bust at this point.

All of that said, it’s clear there is a large mental health elephant in the room. If Sternberger can get some help and recover as a person, he may also recover as a player. I’m just not sure it will eventually be with Green Bay.

APC 53-man roster prediction

Starter: Robert Tonyan

Backups: Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Dominique Dafney

Robert Tonyan was excellent in 2020, and no one is close to challenging him as the primary receiving threat at tight end. That said, Tonyan is also a potential failure point as he really does lack a true backup, at least until Sternberger is active, and if his catch percentage regresses at all, his numbers may come back to earth a bit.

Lewis isn’t so much a backup as a complementary piece. He’ll be out there doing the dirty work whenever they go heavy. Deguara will also see heavy action based on the personnel group of the moment, and should see plenty of time in 12 and 21 sets, with Dafney serving in a reserve role behind him. It’s a deep group of niche players, and Matt LaFleur gets maximum production from them.