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 sharpfootballstats.com. 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.
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