Green Bay Packers

Who Needs Receivers When You Have Tight Ends?

Photo Credit: Tim Fuller (USA TODAY Sports)

Sure, the Green Bay Packers may not have a blatantly viable WR2. Many players came close to filling this role last season, but no player showed enough consistency to make the leap. There is hope for any combination of Devin Funchess, Allen Lazard, and even Marquez Valdes-Scantling to reach those heights. Time will tell.

This situation has encouraged a lot of scuttlebutt about how Green Bay will surround Aaron Rodgers with enough pass-catching talent in the upcoming season. As rumors swirl of Rodgers’ supposed dissatisfaction with the franchise, and while the talking-heads call for his swift departure for greener pastures, the Packers’ hand is being forced to address the bemoaned lack of help.

Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst is surely feeling this pressure. As a couple of us wrote last week, Gutekunst has many different scenarios to weigh as he works to mold the fringes of this roster into one that resembles a championship contender. However, an increasingly worrisome cap situation grows direr as the years go on, and there may not be a large incentive to throw current and future resources at any big-name talent to help on the outside.

While cases have been made for the aforementioned three receivers to transcend mediocrity, another potential answer to this seemingly eternal “Who is going to catch the damn ball?” question could lie in the tight end position. Investments have been made in the TE department slowly but surely over the past couple of seasons, and 2021 may finally be the year where we see these transactions pay dividends for the offense.

This isn’t to say that there has been a lack of production from the Packers’ tight ends. Last season was a breakout campaign for Robert Tonyan, and Big Dog Marcedes Lewis is always a steadying veteran presence on the field. These two were bonafide studs and will continue to provide meaningful play for Green Bay.

With a catch rate of 88% and placement as the No. 1-ranked TE last year in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) at 51.7%, Tonyan’s play would suggest that he will not simply be a flash in the pan. While the 11 touchdowns may not be sustainable, he has shown he can be a reliable contributor in the red zone. If Tonyan makes strides to improve his play between the 20s, we will likely see his yardage total increase from the modest 586 last year. A Jermichael Finley-esque season of 700-plus yards and eight touchdowns doesn’t sound out of the question for Tonyan this upcoming year. Rodgers would surely be happy with that.

The answer to whether or not this personnel group is going to make or break its status among the league’s elite lies within the play of third-round draft picks Jace Sternberger and Josiah Deguara. Selected in 2019 and 2020, respectively, Gutekunst surely used a high selection on both of these players with lofty goals in mind. Thus far, he has gotten little to no return on those investments. Injury has plagued the young careers of Sternberger and Deguara, though if they can stay healthy, they should be able to showcase why they were worthy of their lofty draft statuses.

Sternberger, in particular, could be a rather impactful player if he were to have a fully healthy season. His extensive injury history in the NFL has marred the memories of what was otherwise a special final collegiate season at Texas A&M. As a junior in 2018, Sternberger was the Aggies’ leader in receiving yardage with 832, averaged a gaudy 17.3 yards per catch, and had 10 touchdowns on the season. Standing at 6’5” and weighing nearly 250 lbs., Sternberger has the physical makeup to be a matchup nightmare nearly anywhere on the field.

Whether or not Sternberger can overcome his concussions and hip injuries to actually stay on the field is the question. Sternberger played in only six games during his 2019 rookie campaign and then 12 games last season. Consistent playtime and a clean bill of health would do wonders to see through the fog of Sternberger’s career prospects.

Deguara may then appear to be the odd man out here. Another puzzling selection in a 2020 draft that seemed to leave more questions than answers, Deguara’s rookie campaign was cut short after just two games and one reception after a season-ending knee injury. If Deguara makes an impact next season, he will have to prove his worth in the blocking game and as more of a gadget tight end to see snaps.

With the departure of Danny Vitale this offseason, there is speculation that Deguara could also see snaps at fullback. Nathaniel Hackett, the Packers’ offensive coordinator, has suggested in the past that Deguara has the ability to “line up all over the field,” which would seem to rationalize his high selection in last year’s draft. A near-full season on the sidelines and a complete offseason to learn the playbook will surely give Deguara and the coaching staff ample opportunity to maximize his potential. This upcoming season will be extremely telling as to whether or not Deguara was a good pick.

As both Deguara and Sternberger’s sunk cost remains high, they will both likely be on the roster next season, barring another TE selection in the upcoming draft. If these two players can stay healthy and elevate their play for Green Bay, it is within reason to think that this could be one of the most complete tight-end rooms in the NFL. If Deguara is as good a blocker as many draft experts claimed he is, he will fit nicely into two-TE sets when Lewis needs a breather. Tonyan and Sternberger could make a nice tandem of big-bodied pass-catchers, while Lewis and Deguara could clean up the leftovers.

This assertion is tinted by rose-colored glasses, for sure. However, there is reason to believe that a healthy tight end group could help mitigate the creeping void of pass-catching talent behind Davante Adams. Giving Rodgers and the run game a full group of tight ends to work with could mean good things for the offense in 2021.

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