Big Training Camp Battles: Tight End

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Barring some sort of calamity, it’s hard to see the Green Bay Packers not going into the season with Jace Sternberger, Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan and Josiah Deguara as tight ends.

While those four names might be sure things, their roles will be very much up for grabs when practice begins on Saturday.

Who will be the primary tight end?

Is there a do-it-all player at the position or a bunch of role players?

Can the old guy (Lewis) keep playing at a winning level?

Can the young guy (Deguara) be a factor after COVID-19 wiped out the offseason program and canceled the preseason?

The No. 1 question, however, pertains to Sternberger. A third-round pick last year, his development was stunted by a concussion early in training camp and an ankle injury in the preseason finale that sent him to injured reserve for the first half of the season. With that, most of his rookie year went down the drain.

RELATED: NFL scout ranks NFC North tight ends

Upon drafting him, general manager Brian Gutekunst projected Sternberger as a player who could create mismatches in the passing game but be a work in progress in the running game. In his 60 regular-season snaps and 39 playoff snaps, Sternberger played to the opposite of that projection, which perhaps bodes well for his future. He didn’t catch a pass in six games on the active roster but grabbed three passes for 15 yards and one touchdown in the playoffs. He’s clearly the key to the position.

“We’re depending on Jace to be a big part of what we’re going to do this season,” Gutekunst said last week. “From the time we drafted him, we looked at him as a matchup problem. He’s a very gifted athlete. He’s a young player coming out after one year at Texas A&M, so there was a lot of growth there. We really like the positive signs we saw all through the season last year, and it was unfortunate we didn’t have an offseason to kind of springboard him into this season, but we’re excited to get him back in the fold and see what he can do and where he’s at. Jace is a guy we’re counting on.”

Lewis, who was as important to Matt LaFleur as he was forgotten by Mike McCarthy, flourished in his 14th season in the NFL. He’s back on his third consecutive one-year contract to do the dirty work.

“He’s a true professional,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in December. “I just think last year was such a telling season. You’ve got a guy who’s been to Pro Bowls, who’s had a double-digit touchdown season and to have a very limited role in the passing game, but to see his attitude the entire year and his leadership opportunities taken the way they were taken was a thing of beauty. As an older player, I already had a ton of respect for him but it just went way up when I saw his approach every single day. And like I’ve said here many times, the key I think for him this year is really feeling like he has a role in the offense. When you give a role to somebody, you full them up with purpose and energy and you give them a direction, and it’s allowed him to be an even bigger leader and role model for the guys in this room.”

Last season, Tonyan had catches of 28 and 23 yards in the first five games but suffered a hip injury on the 23-yarder at Dallas. He missed the next five games and was a nonfactor upon his return. Among his 14 catches in two seasons was his 54-yard touchdown at Seattle in 2018. Despite that game-breaking potential, it’s probably now or never.

Deguara was a surprise third-round pick; Gutekunst sees a do-it-all skill-set with the ability to play tight end and fullback. As offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said during the offseason: “He just lines up in a lot of different places, lines up on the line, off the ball, has the athleticism to move all over the place and insert himself throughout the front line, so I think it’s just one of those things it allows us to do some unique things in the run/play-pass world and also to catch the ball. I think all those things are exciting things.”

A wild card might be Looney, who was drafted as a defensive lineman but moved to tight end last year.

“I feel like I’m a pretty athletic guy,” Looney said. “They put me at tight end for certain teams that we played and certain looks that they wanted. It just worked out from there. I guess Gutey and Coach LaFleur seen something that they really liked in me. They called me over and changed me midseason.”

Final roster prediction (4)

In: Sternberger, Lewis, Tonyan, Deguara.

Out: Evan Baylis, James Looney.

Big Training Camp Battles

QB: Boyle vs. Love

RB: Are the top four locks?

OL: Does Turner vs. Taylor mean Taylor vs. Wagner?

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