Packers’ tight end review: who stays, who goes?

Last week, we looked at the reasons why Jace Sternberger is well-positioned for the TE1 position in 2020. There is an obvious downside to this conclusion; namely that if a rookie who spent a majority of the season on IR is your primary tight end, the rest of the position group must not look great. And that’s true. While Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis had more success in year 2 in Green Bay, the team didn’t get much value from the position.

When Matt LaFleur entered the chat in 2019, he stated his desire for the illusion of complexity. In regards to the tight end position, we inferred he’d want more rounded tight ends, capable of blocking and receiving with equal gusto. His history with Tennessee showed a willingness to use multiple tight end sets, and thus the expectation the tight end would play a major role was born.

This proved true, as LaFleur used 12 personnel 25%, compared to the 20% McCarthy used in 2018, according to LaFleur used 2 tight end sets a whopping 36% as the playcaller in Tennessee. Yet for all their time on the field, the tight ends didn’t play a major role in the passing game. Once again, the tight end group seems positioned for a makeover, as lack of production, contracts, and age create complications. Who will remain from 2019’s group?

Jimmy Graham
Regular season stats: 60 targets/38 receptions/447 yards/3 TDs

Despite being one of the most fun tight ends to watch in past years, Graham is one of Gutekunst’s few major misses. He was signed to be a major presence in the passing game, which never coalesced. That said, Graham played better in year 2, and ignoring the times he was strangely expected to block an edge rusher 1-on-1, Graham was much better in the blocking game. Graham also showed up big against his former team in the Divisional Round game against the Seattle Seahawks.

With such little production and while being one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league, Graham was considered a likely cap-clearing release. That appears to be true, as Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday afternoon that Graham isn’t expected back in Green Bay. With that report, there seems little point in analyzing Graham further.

Marcedes Lewis
19 targets/15 receptions/156 yards/1 TD

Often referred to primarily as a blocking tight end, Lewis did that job very well. Look at some of Aaron Jones or Jamaal Williams best runs and there’s a good chance a Lewis block was a crucial component. Lewis had limited opportunities in the passing game but took advantage of those chances. He caught his first Aaron Rodgers touchdown, one Rodgers called out with a “Big Dog.” He wasn’t a major target in the passing game, however, he’s reliable and more than capable of making plays through the air.

As a complementary piece, Lewis can be an incredible asset for Sternberger in 2020, who he’s been a valuable mentor for. With the Packers’ focus on the run game, someone with Lewis’s blocking skill is extremely valuable. Lewis’ contract is up, but he should be able to be kept for a reasonable amount. If the Packers decide to make a splashy free agent tight end acquisition, Lewis could become an unfortunate cap causality.

Robert Tonyan
15 targets/10 receptions/100 yards/1 TD

Big Bob Tonyan has been a training camp and preseason favorite the last two years, but so far hasn’t displayed anything overly noteworthy in the regular season. As a developmental signing, we aren’t sure what he can be yet, and tight end is a notoriously difficult position to adjust to NFL life. But Tonyan might just be a guy. He’s an ERFA going into 2020 and likely would be cheap to resign, but the Packers may be able to find stronger developmental pieces elsewhere. Tonyan’s future likely depends on how Green Bay’s cap situation works out.

Evan Baylis is a developmental prospect far down the depth chart, and James Looney is new to the position. Both are likely practice squad players.

Beyond Sternberger, the future is murky in the tight end group. With Graham’s departure and Lewis’ and Tonyan’s contracts ending, it could be a very different group next season. Keeping Lewis is a smart move, as he brings a veteran presence and important skillset for a good price, but free agency could change that.

Tune in next week to see what free agents could be in the mix for 2020.

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.

10 thoughts on “Packers’ tight end review: who stays, who goes?

  1. At some point you have to look at Rodgers just a bit here. It’s hard to consider developing a TE or anyone else on the field when he’s focused all the time on Adams. Jimmy Graham leaving GB is a no brainer, they’ll need the cap space. I actually think they have exactly what they need on the roster right now. I hink you simply have to get Tonyan and Sternberger on the field, they’ll only develop if given opportunity. If you keep Lewis, you’re basically committing to not developing the guys you have. Sternberger has already demonstrated he’s a will blocker. Lewis brings mostly that. I like Lewis well enough, I just think if you resign him you’re holding back your younger guys from developing. Unless, the franchise feels they don’t Tonyan has the skills or something.

  2. Keeping Lewis is NOT a smart move. It is stupid beyond stupid. Dude can’t run, and his declining blocking skills are overrated. My goodness, do you actually think the solution against teams like San Francisco is…to get SLOWER????

    Unreal. Stupid beyond stupid.

    Tonyan was hurt last season and played through it. He’ll be back healthy. Sternberger is a solid starter, with decent speed, great hands and routes, and surprisingly good blocking for a receiving TE coming out of college. He’s our #1 and Tonyan is our #2. We’ll draft someone to compete for a spot.

    Good enough. With EXTREME needs on this team (nose tackle is the biggest), we can’t afford to throw money away on a free agent TE. Go young, stay the course, and spend big ,money on one position–nose tackle.

    Problem solved.

    1. I think the Lewis comments are a bit of an exaggeration. He’s not a spring chicken by any measure, but he’s still a better blocker than Jace or Tonyan.

      I think he stays UNLESS Hooper is signed (hope not) or a TE is drafted in the top 4-5 rounds. Lewis is serviceable in two TE sets as a blocker and he’s still 6’8″ (?) and could be a red zone option for very little cap hit.

      1. Oh, I definitely think we’re taking a TE in the first 4-5 rounds. So by your own measure, we’re fine without the extremely slow Lewis with declining blocking skills.

        1. I’m saying I don’t see him getting cut because we got a TE in the 7th. Would we keep 4 TEs, probably not, so if we went with one early he’d probably be the odd man out.

          I look at Lewis similar to that of Tramon. I think we are in a transition phase at TE so I think he stays on for one more year (unless Hooper is signed) to mentor Jace and Bobby.

          1. The 7th round isn’t in the first 4-5 rounds. I see us taking a TE in the 3rd or 4th.

            There is no reason on earth to keep Marcedes Lewis. None. If he were on the open market, he’d struggle to get a lousy deal in the lower group of washups.

            1. So you’d be comfortable with Jace and Tonyan as the top 2 TEs on this team and utilizing their blocking skills?

              Hard to see that happening. Whether it’s Lewis or bringing in Daniel Fells or some other low cost TE (probably low ceiling too) feels like a play that Green Bay will make. Hooper will probably cash in with Indy or Jacksonville with their $90M in cap room

            2. Yep, I’d feel fantastic about it. I’d be overwhelmed with joy.

              Why? Because you can’t plug every single conceivable hole with more money. You just can’t. Teams who try doing that…implode. I love my team. I don’t want them to implode.

              Solid blockers who are poor receiving threats actually hurt the run game, since defenses don’t take them seriously downfield. Want better run lanes? Stretch the seam.

              We can’t buy away every need. All we can do is assess the FA market and draft, then address issues as well as possible. Our greatest need–by far–is nose tackle. Nothing else comes close. My goodness, we have an elite 3-4 end (Clark) playing out of position to compensate, but he’s nearly 30 pounds underweight and is a penetrator, not a roadblock. Just imagine a monster like Clark playing next to a real nose tackle–it would be spectacular. Instead, we’re just wearing him down inside and shortening his career. It’s almost criminal.

              No one watching our D-Line being blown into the next zip code can see this any differently. It’s awful to watch. Worse yet, Pettine then tries to compensate by squeezing OLB’s in and bringing safeties up, only to surrender massive outside runs and more deep throws than nearly any defense.

              All because we’re the only 3-4 defense playing without a nose tackle.

              Meanwhile, we have insane writers hoping we spend cap dollars on TE’s–unbelievable.

              It’s embarrassing, really. We NEED a nose tackle–probably two for depth. After that, we can worry about trinkets like TE’s and ILB’s.

            3. That I agree with 100%. Lowry and Lancaster are rotational depth pieces at best. I think two of Snacks Harrison, Pierce from Baltimore, Hargrave and Reader should be considered before FA TE and ILB.

              I’d be happy with a draft of ILB/WR in the first two picks with Oline and DLine a strong focus during the rest of the draft.

            4. I’d offer big money for Reader. Pierce would work well too–there are several options. If we just get one, draft another in mid rounds.

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