The 2019 draft class was abundant with talented tight ends, and the NFC North took notice. The top prospect, Iowa tight end T. J. Hockenson, went to Detroit with the eighth pick, while Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. became a Viking in the second round. Naturally, they will not be invited to my birthday party now. The Green Bay Packers weren’t going to sit idle as their rivals bolstered their ranks and drafted Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger with the 75th pick.
Despite not receiving the pre-draft fanfare the Iowa tight ends and Smith generated, Sternberger is no consolation prize. Ranked as Pro Football Focus’s #1 receiving tight end, Sternberger was a production machine at A&M with 832 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018. Despite being an outlier in terms of athletic score (his 5.24 RAS was the lowest of the Packers’ draft class), he plays much faster on tape than it may appear. While his blocking is in definite need of improvement, he possesses reliable hands, solid foundations of route running, and a competitive spirit. Sternberger has the tools to be a menacing pass-catching tight end.
But there is a colloquialism about the difficulty for college tight ends to adjust to the NFL level. And the Packers already have two veteran tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, on the roster for 2018. Jace Sternberger can be the tight end of the future in Green Bay, but what will he bring to the table as a rookie?
Compared to his predecessor, tight ends will be a larger focus in Matt LaFleur’s offense. LaFleur favors 12 personnel, or two tight end sets, which makes sense considering his love of subterfuge in his offense. While this could mean more opportunities for Sternberger, the Packers do have two established, veteran tight ends who will see significant snaps.
Both Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis are specialists rather than fully well-rounded tight ends. Graham is the prototypical receiving tight end, while Lewis is one of the most tenacious blocking tight ends (though expect to see Lewis used in the passing game more than when McCarthy was in charge). Because Sternberger is a significantly more accomplished receiver than blocker at this point, putting him in over Lewis takes away that strong presence in the blocking game and could signal passing intent. He would need to compete with Graham for opportunities.
The plus side of this interaction is Sternberger has two of the best mentors for both major responsibilities. While Graham’s first year in Green and Gold didn’t live up to expectations, the Pro Bowler is still one of the most iconic and decorated pass-catching tight ends of the last decade. Lewis is one of the most reliable blockers at the position. Being able to learn from these two, and play alongside them, is a fantastic opportunity.
While slot receiver isn’t quite as crucial to LaFleur’s offense as it was McCarthy’s, Randall Cobb’s departure does provide a tantalizing spot for a young player to fill in. With good hands and good burst off the line of scrimmage, Sternberger can be used as a “big slot” receiver and split time there with Equanimeous St. Brown and J’More Moore, among others.
Sternberger will require time in the weight room and working with coaches to develop into an NFL-caliber blocker. This is something he seems well aware of, and he has the right attitude and perseverance to put in the work. The sooner he develops this aspect, the more playing time he’ll get.
Where Sternberger can truly make his impact in 2019 is as a red zone threat. The Aggie led FBS tight ends in receiving touchdowns in 2018, with 10. His good hands and smart route running make him an ideal red zone threat right away, provided he can build chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. Even with a crowded tight end room, Sternberger can make a name for himself this way and could have a handful of touchdowns by the end of the season.
Sternberger has the tools to be a Pro Bowl tight end and has two accomplished mentors to learn from. Matt LaFleur’s offense will feature multiple tight end sets and offer more opportunities for a young tight end to see playing time, but a crowded room will make snaps a tough commodity. Sternberger will need to bulk up and grow as a blocker to earn those snaps, but his impressive receiving ability and sensational red zone ability will make it challenging to keep him off the field for too long.Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.