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10 Days Until Training Camp: Tight Ends Preview

In the third of a series of positional previews, we take a look at Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis and the rest of the Green Bay Packers' tight ends.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers training camp starts on July 27, with the first practice on July 28. Our Training Camp Countdown series continues with the third of our positional previews, the tight ends.

Packers Tight End Depth Chart Quick Reads

Robert Tonyan: The former college quarterback was a breakout star in 2020 with 52 receptions for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. Of the 34 tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times in the passing game, Tonyan was No. 1 in catch percentage (89.7), drop percentage (0.0) and passer rating (148.3), according to Pro Football Focus. Tonyan is either a great route runner or has an invisibility cloak, because he was routinely open. He’s back on a restricted free agent tender. If he has another strong season, will the Packers be able to afford to keep him?

Marcedes Lewis: Lewis’ value far exceeds his 10 receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns from 2020. It even exceeds his value as a blocker, which was considerable in helping power one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks. Lewis is the ultimate team player, the type of “glue” guy that teams covet for their selflessness and leadership. Over his three seasons with the team, he’s been a mentor to the young tight ends, a friend for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an overall leader. There’s a role for him at age 37.

Josiah Deguara: A surprise third-round pick, Deguara’s rookie season went down the drain due to injuries. Deguara played 24 snaps in the opener at Minnesota, where he caught one pass for 12 yards. However, an ankle injury kept him out of two games. He returned to action in Week 4 against Atlanta and played seven snaps on offense before suffering a torn ACL on special teams. If healthy, he’ll line up here, there and everywhere.

Jace Sternberger: A third-round pick in 2019, the Packers hoped they’d finally found their No. 1 tight end. Instead, he might be battling for a roster spot. In 11 games in 2020, Sternberger caught 12-of-15 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. He was playing about 20 snaps per game until suffering a concussion in Week 13 against Philadelphia. He didn’t play again, including being a healthy scratch for both playoff games. He’ll start the upcoming season with a two-game suspension, though at least he’ll be eligible to practice and play in preseason games.

Dominique Dafney: With Deguara and John Lovett on injured reserve, Dafney became a surprise contributor at the “F” position. He caught two passes for 26 yards, including a touchdown in the finale against Chicago. In the NFC Championship Game, Dafney played 17 snaps on offense while Sternberger was inactive.

Isaac Nauta: The Packers signed Nauta to the practice squad in December. A seventh-round pick out in the 2019 draft by the Detroit Lions, Nauta has three catches for 16 yards in 13 career games. That includes one catch for 3 yards in 2020, when he was twice elevated from the practice squad before being added to the 53-man roster for five more games. He’s got a shot as a blocker.

Bronson Kaufusi: Like Sternberger, Kaufusi is a former third-round pick. Unlike Sternberger, Kaufusi was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive lineman after a quarterback-sacking career at BYU. He made the move to tight end while on the Jets’ practice squad last year. “A lot of our tight ends had gotten hurt so I was like, ‘I’ll go out there and play it,’” Kaufusi told Packer Central. At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, he’s got some intriguing potential.

Big Story Lines at Tight End

One: What’s the next step for Tonyan, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and signed to the Packers’ practice squad late that season in one of those who-cares-about type of transactions? What he did in 2020 was preposterous. His 11 touchdowns tied Kansas City’s Travis Kelce for most in the NFL among tight ends in 2020 and matched Paul Coffman’s franchise record by a tight end. He scored three touchdowns of 25-plus yards (No. 1 among tight ends in 2020) and scored in five consecutive games (most by a tight end in Packers history and most by a tight end in the NFL since 2014). He didn’t drop a single pass.

“He’s got every trait that he needs to be successful and put in that elite category,” tight ends coach Justin Outten said during OTAs. “He understands his weaknesses, and each year they’re different because you want a new set of goals to work on and make them your strengths. Allowing him to have another year in this offense, allowing him to feel that confidence that he needed propelling himself into this offseason has just been awesome. His mindset has been great, his goal setting has been on point. He’s doing all the right things that you need to do to be a really good player in this league.”

Two: How long can Lewis keep doing his thing? He turned 37 in May. With the retirement of Jason Witten, he’s the oldest tight end in the NFL. For some, age is but a number. No, Lewis isn’t going to score 10 touchdowns, like he did for Jacksonville in 2010. Heck, he might not reach the over on his three-year Green Bay average of 9.3 receptions. But he’s retooled his game over the years to become a top blocker. That could be especially important if a certain quarterback doesn’t return.

“A really good coach [his position coach at UCLA, Jon Embree] told me there’s a lot of tight ends that can go out there and catch the ball and run around and look pretty,” Lewis recalled last year. “It’s not too many that are going to get dirty and do the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”

Three: Could a former bouncer knock a third-round pick off the roster? Dafney attended three colleges and had only one standout performance – as a wildcat runner in his collegiate finale at Indiana State. After being released by the Colts at the end of camp, he got a job at a bar until the Packers signed him to the practice squad in October. By season’s end, Dafney had won a role while Sternberger had earned himself a spot on the bench. Perhaps Dafney was a flash in the pan. Perhaps Sternberger will be saved by the financial and draft investment. Or, perhaps after two disappointing seasons and now a suspension, his obvious talent will merge with health and preparation to get his career pointed the right direction.

Four: When training camp starts, Deguara will be about nine-and-a-half months past his torn ACL. If he’s ready to go, he’ll be the front-runner for that jack-of-all-trades position. Remember, there isn’t a fullback on the roster so someone has to be step into the backfield. That role should be Deguara’s, though Dafney and Nauta could jump into the mix if Deguara isn’t ready.

“His career, it’s going to be a long one for him in this league. We’re excited to have him and what he brings to the offense,” Outten said.

Five: Maybe it’s just me, but I’m incredibly intrigued by Kaufusi. Former Jets coach Adam Gase moved him to tight end because of how he performed as a member of the scout team. With some experience at the position and obvious physical traits, maybe he’ll be one of the surprises of training camp.

Tight ends coach Justin Outten says

“It’s an exciting room to be in. It’s a well-rounded, veteran group that, they’re all competitive but not to the fault of not hanging out with each other and getting each other better. It’s a unique chemistry that we have in that room. I’m really excited. Every time I go upstairs to watch the tape, you see guys working their tails off to prove themselves, and guys are going to have to come to work each and every day to prepare. They’re not trying to beat out the guy in the same room with them; they’re trying to be the best in the league. So, they have a higher expectation for themselves and it’s just exciting to watch these guys compete against each other.”

Countdown to Packers Training Camp

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Feature: Bronson Kaufusi's position change

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