GREEN BAY, Wis. – As the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first-round pick in 2006, tight end Marcedes Lewis was taken under his wing by the team’s star running back, Fred Taylor.
After delivering a series of pancake blocks in the old-school Oklahoma Drill during his first training camp, Taylor pulled him aside. As Lewis recalled the conversation following Sunday’s training camp practice, Taylor said, “‘Hey, man, you keep doing stuff like that, you’re going to be in this league for a very long time.’ And at that time, I didn’t know what he meant. I felt like, when I first got into the league, I was like, ‘Ten years would be a good career.’”
Lewis has blown past 10 years and is into Year 15, including his third with the Green Bay Packers. Only four members of the 2006 draft are on rosters: offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and punter Sam Koch.
After a disappointing first season in Green Bay in 2018, with former coach Mike McCarthy mostly forgetting about Lewis’ existence, Lewis considered retirement. General manager Brian Gutekunst coaxed him back, believing Lewis would be a strong fit in new coach Matt LaFleur’s run-oriented system.
There was no need to coax Lewis back in 2020. LaFleur embraced Lewis’ grit and Lewis embraced his role, which saw him on the field for almost 300 more snaps than the previous season.
“Definitely no doubt” about returning, Lewis said. “I think it’s all about the system, the people. I always say, you can be a great coach but if you’re not really a good person with good intent, then it can end up bad. Obviously, spending my first 12 years in Jacksonville and ending the way it ended [with his release], that’s not how I drew it up.
“LaFleur coming here and my tight end coach, Justin Outten, just the perfect fit. It’s the type of offense that kind of highlights what I do really well. In the first part of my career in Jacksonville, it was run the rock, play-action pass, take our shots when we needed to. So, I’m really familiar with what we’re doing and I have a good understanding of what’s expected of me.”
The expectation for 2020 is more of the same. Last season, Lewis played 487 snaps – an average of about 30 per game. With the release of Jimmy Graham and the young, unproven depth chart behind him – Lewis’ 187 career starts are 184 more than every other tight end on the roster – Lewis could be in line for more playing time this year. Lewis, who has trained in mixed-martial arts for eight years, returned for training camp in peak physical condition and, if necessary, is ready for even a larger workload.
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Part of being that all-around player is being a leader. Whether it was an undrafted free agent like Robert Tonyan, a defensive line convert like James Looney or an early-round draft pick like Jace Sternberger or Josiah Deguara, Lewis has been there to lend his on-the-field experience and off-the-field wisdom.
“This isn’t just a guy who’s making it through 15 years just collecting checks. This is a guy who goes out and works his ass off every day, sets the tone,” Tonyan said last week. “For me, I want to be great. He realizes that, so he took me under his wing way back when and I’ve just had such a good relationship with him on and off the field.”
Lewis has changed with the times. In 2009, he led all tight ends with 16.2 yards per receptions. In 2010, he caught 58 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. He added 52 receptions in 2012. That’s not his game anymore. In two seasons in Green Bay, he’s caught only 18 passes.
While players listen to Lewis today, Lewis did the listening back in the day. At UCLA, his position coach was Jon Embree, who was drafted by the Rams in 1987. Embree, who is in his third season as the 49ers’ tight ends coach, offered some sage advice to Lewis that no doubt has played a role in Lewis’ longevity and made him, in words, “the last of a dying breed” of tight ends who are coveted for their blocking more than their receiving.
“A really good coach 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 Embree saying. “It’s not too many that are going to get dirty and do the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
At age 36, Lewis certainly doesn’t need to be getting dirty and sweating through a sweltering Wisconsin Sunday. He is part of a YouTube show called “The Thre@d” on LeBron James’ sports media company. His competitive hunger could be filled by jiu jitsu. But, he said he has a lot in the tank and “a lot to give to this game.” When he signed with the Packers in 2018, the draw was playing alongside Aaron Rodgers and a chance to win a Super Bowl. Those things haven’t changed. With Rodgers among his closest friends and the team getting to the cusp of the Super Bowl last year, Lewis eagerly returned for one more season.
“That was the first thing that popped in my mind when I signed here in the first place was, one, to play with Aaron Rodgers and, two, to pursue a championship,” Lewis said. “I just felt like this is the best place. It gives me the best chance to do that, and also, just provide my leadership and display my style. It’s one of those things you can't really put a pinpoint when you talk about why you do certain things, but I’m definitely excited to be here, excited to lead this young group of tight ends that I have in my room and go get what's ours.”