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Packers at the Bye: Tight Ends

With 12 games down and a fight for the No. 1 seed and the playoffs on the horizon, here’s the key at tight end for the Green Bay Packers.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s no overstating the loss of Robert Tonyan to the Green Bay Packers’ offense.

Last season, he caught 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns. He led NFL tight ends in catch percentage (88.1), drop percentage (0.0) and touchdowns (tied with Travis Kelce). This season following an excellent training camp, Tonyan’s production was limited by additional duties as a blocker. But he caught four passes for 63 yards and one touchdown vs. Washington in Week 7 and had a 33-yard catch at Arizona in Week 8. That 33-yard catch, however, ended with a torn ACL. Just as Tonyan’s season seemingly was poised to take off, it was shot down.

It was a painful ending for Tonyan and the team. From Tonyan’s perspective, if he could have gotten remotely close to duplicating his 2020 production, he would have been in for a monster payday in free agency this coming offseason. Instead, he’ll enter free agency with lackluster numbers (11 incompletions in eight games vs. seven all of last season) and the uncertainty of a major injury that could sideline him through training camp.

From the team perspective, the Packers simply don’t have another tight end like him on the roster. At full strength, Green Bay’s tight end group had it all. Tonyan was the epitome of the modern tight end. He could stretch the field as a sure-handed receiver and handle the dirty work at an acceptable level as a blocker. Marcedes Lewis is the gritty, old-school blocker who can catch well enough to keep defenses honest. And Josiah Degaura and Dominique Dafney, while not tight ends in the traditional sense, can contribute here, there and everywhere.

Tonyan’s the man who made it all go, though. The Packers can’t just put the 37-year-old Lewis in Tonyan’s spots and expect the same results. And Deguara and Dafney aren’t big enough to win consistently at the line of scrimmage.

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In eight games, Tonyan recorded a modest 204 yards in eight games. That’s still not far behind the combined 36-game total of 236 yards from Lewis (14-of-17 for 121 yards and zero touchdowns), Deguara (12-of-15 for 103 yards and one touchdown), Dafney (1-of-2 for 8 yards) and Tyler Davis (1-of-1 for 4 yards).

The biggest key going forward isn’t figuring out how to ramp up the passing-game production. The scramble-play touchdown at Minnesota seemingly was a positive indicator for Deguara, but he caught 2-of-3 targets for 13 yards vs. the Rams. None of those guys are Tonyan, and picking up the slack will largely fall elsewhere.

Rather, coach Matt LaFleur and his staff must figure out how to deploy their personnel without being predictable. Against the Rams, Degaura was on the field for 35 snaps; 29 of those were passes. Lewis was on the field for 33 snaps; 23 were runs. Dafney was on the field for 20 snaps; 16 were runs. Those are significant trends that defenses will take note of. It’s up to the coaches to run enough trend-busters to keep opponents from teeing off on the offense based on personnel.

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