As the cutdown to the 53-man roster looms, the Green Bay Packers are in about the best position you could hope for at tight end, with a dangerous combination of dynamic pass catching, reliable blocking, and offensive diversity. The Packers’ tight ends have thrived in head coach Matt LaFleur’s system, thanks largely to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but that depth means that time could be running out for Jace Sternberger in Green Bay.
Last year, Robert Tonyan exploded onto the scene, catching 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns, tying a Packers record for scores by a tight end. While he wasn’t a threat to surpass Davante Adams as the offense’s top pass-catching target, Rodgers certainly trusted the now 27-year-old former quarterback-turned-wide-receiver from Indiana State and looked at him as a viable option in the red zone. As Tonyan became an increasingly integral part of the offense, it was hard not to think that this was the role that Green Bay envisioned for Sternberger when they drafted him in the third round out of Texas A&M in 2019.
If Sternberger is going to be an effective part of the Packers’ offense, it’s going to be as a pass catcher. He’s certainly not the monster that Marcedes Lewis is, functionally serving as another offensive tackle on many plays, nor is he as versatile as Josiah Deguara, last season’s third-round pick who tore his ACL in Week 5.
He’s at his best finding mismatches on linebackers or using his 6’4”, 251 lbs. frame as a mismatch for defensive backs. However, his entire career has only consisted of 20 total games, with 15 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns to show for it. Granted, he has missed a substantial amount of time due to injury, with a concussion and ankle injury cutting into his rookie season and another concussion this past season limiting his availability late in the season. But he got the coaching staff’s attention when he was healthy, albeit usually for the wrong reasons.
Earlier in training camp, Packers tight ends coach Justin Outten didn’t pull many punches when it came to his assessment of Sternberger.
“With his consistency, it’s kind of been sporadic,” he said on Aug. 15. “Whether it’s still getting used to the playbook or feeling around the line of scrimmage, he’s still having some up-and-down days. With the extra reps that he’s getting, he’s got to handle it a little bit better in a sense of more video and doing the extra things outside. But that’s all fixable. Those things can come along.”
Over the course of the Green Bay preseason, Sternberger received the most snaps at the tight end position, culminating with 38 snaps this past weekend against Buffalo — easily outpacing the 26 snaps for Bronson Kaufusi. The interpretation there is that the Packers coaches are trying to gather as many data points as possible on Sternberger so that they can feel as confident as possible in whatever decision they make.
“This is a huge preseason for him with these three games and being the guy and getting as much reps as possible in these live settings,” Outten added in the Aug. 15 press conference. “He can grow from some lessons that he learned last night (against Houston) and then moving forward.”
Oddly, one factor that might help preserve Sternberger’s spot on the team is his two-game suspension after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Sternberger won’t count towards the team’s 53-man roster during those first two weeks, giving general manager Brian Gutekunst a viable backup plan should something happen to the likes of Tonyan, Lewis, or Deguara early in the season.
Last year, the Packers had four tight ends on cutdown day: Lewis, Tonyan, Deguara, and Sternberger. The biggest addition to that group in the past calendar year has been Dominique Dafney, the former bouncer who every Green Bay fan collectively asked, “Wait, who?” when he reeled in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers in the Packers’ 35-16 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 17 last season. Dafney better fits the mold of what Deguara can do than Tonyan, and a team can certainly do worse than a versatile player who’s more than willing to contribute on special teams, as he drilled Cordarrelle Patterson on the kick return following his touchdown against the Bears.
The decision for Gutekunst seems simple. Tonyan and Lewis are absolute locks, Deguara has done more than enough to make the team, and Dafney will certainly be a contributor in some facet, especially with Sternberger out the first two weeks. Sternberger still has potential and pedigree, so much so that he likely wouldn’t survive the waiver process to end up on the practice squad following his suspension. He will almost assuredly get another chance to contribute in the NFL — but, barring injury, it may not come with the Green Bay Packers.