It’s NFL Scouting Combine week, and draft hype is in full swing. Speculation runs rampant, and draft crushes are materializing. But the 2020 NFL Draft doesn’t start until April 23, and even free agency doesn’t start for another few weeks (March 18). While the offseason builds to its main events, it’s the perfect time for an annual review of the Green Bay Packers’ tight end room. Over the next few weeks, I’ll address the tight ends currently on the roster, top free agent options, and likely draft picks.
For this week’s focus, let’s put the spotlight on the 2020 Packers’ TE1: Jace Sternberger.
With a small sample size and considering Sternberger’s unfortunate injuries, this may seem a bold statement. However, Sternberger proved he has the traits to succeed in the NFL, and rookie stats aren’t indicative of stardom for tight ends.
Sternberger was a touchdown machine at Texas A&M and was scouted as a willing, if not spectacular blocker. The Packers drafted the young tight end in the third round (pick 75 overall) and was the highest-drafted skill position player since Ty Montgomery in 2015 (round 3, pick 94 overall).
Unfortunately, injuries plagued the promising rookie’s season. After altercations during the team’s preseason joint practices with the Houston Texas, Sternberger suffered a concussion and jaw injury that kept him out for three weeks. He then left with preseason finale with an ankle injury (after catching his first NFL touchdown). Sternberger made the initial 53-man roster but was placed on IR.
In late October, Sternberger was designated for return and officially returned to the roster on November 2nd. In the regular season, he played 60 offensive snaps (5.57%) and played 11.19% of special teams snaps. While he didn’t see much in the passing game (one target with one dropped pass) he showed promise as a blocker, operating as an H-back with Danny Vitale out of commission.
When the playoffs started, Sternberger really started to shine. He had vital blocks against Seattle and San Francisco and became an asset in the passing game. He caught his lone target against Seattle and drew a timely face mask penalty against Jadeveon Clowney. In the Conference Championship game, he caught both of his targets for 13 yards and a touchdown. In a game where little went well, Sternberger was a bright spot.
Despite missing a significant amount of playtime and having an unassuming statline, Sternberger showed the traits that you want from an NFL tight end. His blocking skills were much more polished than his scouting projected. He displayed reliable hands and multiple instances of being open for splash plays. He showed grit while dealing with his injuries and toughness in how he handled his preseason altercation and in how he stood up to Clowney.
Few tight ends contribute immediately as rookies. Of the recent star tight ends, including Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce, not a single one recorded more than 600 receiving yards. Kelce was on IR for the majority of his rookie season.
Tight end is an extremely difficult position to transition to the NFL level. Rookies must adapt both as blockers and receivers, and learning two positions worth of material while adapting to the speed and strength of NFL play. Tangible traits are much more important, and Sternberger has those on glorious display.
Being able to learn from Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, two decorated and respected veterans and stars of the position, was a boon for the former Aggie. Lewis praised Sternberger, saying “Just his understanding that if you’re being physical, that’s going to help you with your releases and getting off the ball and catching the ball. He’s going to be a good one. He’s nasty and you need that to be in this league. I’m proud of him and where he’s at right now,” according to packers.com.
With ideal skills and some of the best mentorship available, Sternberger can build on his strong playoff run, develop chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, and become a star for this team.
Tune in next week for an overview of the rest of the tight ends on the roster. (All stats courtesy of https://www.pro-football-reference.com/ )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.