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Ranking the Roster: Nos. 49-51 – Sternberger vs. Dafney at Tight End?

In the battle for roster spots, it could be a former third-round pick vs. a former bouncer. Plus, long snapper Hunter Bradley will have to fight to keep his job.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster ahead of July 28, the first practice of training camp. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.

No. 49: TE Jace Sternberger (6-4, 251; 25; third year; Texas A&M)

With Robert Tonyan’s breakout production, Marcedes Lewis’ leadership and blocking and Josiah Deguara’s versatility, the Packers appear set at the top of the tight end depth chart. If there’s a battle for a fourth and final spot, it could come down to a former third-round pick vs. a former bouncer.

Sternberger is the former third-round pick. After the Packers swung and missed on the likes of veterans Martellus Bennett and Jimmy Graham, they grabbed Sternberger in the 2019 draft following a one-year wonder season of 48 receptions for 832 yards. His 17.3-yard average and 10 touchdowns led the nation’s tight ends. Instead, Sternberger’s career has gone nowhere fast. His rookie season was ruined by a concussion in training camp and an ankle injury in the preseason finale. Last season, COVID sidelined him for the start of training camp and a Week 13 concussion essentially ended his season. Even when cleared from the concussion, he was inactive for the games.

In 18 games over two seasons, he’s caught 12-of-16 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. He’s played merely 262 snaps from scrimmage. Sternberger needs a full training camp and some good health after missing significant time in each of his first two seasons. However, he’ll open the regular season with a two-game suspension.

“OTAs is huge for guys like Jace and the younger guys, because you’re splitting the fields and everybody is getting the same amount of reps and getting videotaped,” tight ends coach Justin Outten said during OTAs. “Just seeing his progression and wrapping his mind around the playbook, and getting the techniques down – less thinking, playing faster – those are the things that he’s continuing to work on throughout OTAs right now. He’s got his chances moving forward here like everybody else will. Just excited to see his progress.”

The Packers could release Sternberger and save more than $600,000 on the cap. Or, with the realization that he might be fighting for his job, maybe everything will click.

No. 50: TE Dominique Dafney (6-2, 243; 24; first year; Indiana State)

Dafney is the former bouncer. He’s quite a story. He started his career at Iowa Western Community College in 2016 and played special teams at Iowa in 2017 and 2018 before finishing his career at Indiana State in 2019.

His senior year was sputtering along until he was moved to wildcat quarterback late in the season. In his final collegiate game, he rushed for 244 yards and scored five touchdowns against Missouri State. That’s 29 more yards than his combined receiving yardage total from his two seasons at Iowa and the one season at Indiana State.

“It was awesome,” Dafney recalled a handful of days after scoring a touchdown against the Chicago Bears. “There’s an interview at the end of the game where I got a little emotional. It was that last showing of what I can do, showing what I’ve been able to do. The opportunity presented itself and like most people, you just take it and just run with it. I did that and I had great numbers and we had a great game and just a great sendoff to my college career. It was awesome because, obviously, I went through a lot during college and the road was weird and it was long and it was tough and there were ups and downs – a lot more downs than ups, if I’m being honest. It was just that final at-the-top-of-the-mountain, and you finally get there.”

Unproductive small-school receivers don’t get much love from scouts. Not surprisingly, Dafney went undrafted and unsigned. He did join the Indianapolis Colts late in training camp but didn’t make the roster and wasn’t signed to the practice squad.

To make a few bucks while continuing to pursue his NFL dreams, he got a job as a bouncer at 300 Craft & Rooftop, a bar in Des Moines.

“I had to do something,” he said. “I was going crazy. The routine of waking up, going to lift and going home and eating and doing nothing for the rest of the day was driving me nuts, so I had to do something. One of my friends from back home was like, just come work with us. It was an easy job. I didn’t really have to do anything. I just kind of sat there and got paid and that was it. I just needed something to break that cycle, so I had a job just to fill time.”

The Packers signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 12. With Josiah Deguara and John Lovett out with torn ACLs, Dafney was elevated for the Week 13 game against Philadelphia. When Jace Sternberger suffered a concussion in that game, Dafney was signed to the 53-man roster. Over the final four games, he played 64 snaps. He caught two passes for 26 yards and one touchdown and added two tackles on special teams.

With his NFL chances seeming remote, at best, what kept him going?

“I just kept fighting, to be honest,” he said. “I just wanted it so bad and I wanted to be here and play in the big leagues so bad. I just kept working. There were harder days. There were easier days, obviously, but there was just that motivation to be able to be an NFL player and play football and to keep playing football because I missed it a lot. Over the summer, I missed playing football, 7-on-7, all of it. Every single aspect of football, I’ve missed. It was kind of that want and that need for football in my life that I just kept going.”

No. 51: LS Hunter Bradley (6-3, 241; 27; fourth year; Mississippi State)

New special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton didn’t hold back when asked about Bradley and punter JK Scott, two disappointing 2018 draft picks.

“They understand that their backs are against the wall,” Drayton said on March 2.

With Joe Fortunato signed as competition, Bradley apparently has answered the challenge.

“Hunter’s come here and he’s done a great job so far in the couple practices we’ve had,” Drayton said during OTAs. “It’s going to be real interesting.”

When the Packers used a seventh-round pick on Bradley in 2018, it marked just the 13th time in NFL history that a team drafted a long snapper. With that, the expectation was Bradley would provide stability at a position that had lacked it.

Bradley hasn’t been awful. He’s had only two truly terrible snaps: a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half of a 2018 game at Washington and an extra point in the 2020 playoff game against Los Angeles. The one against the Rams set off a bizarre chain of events that led to kicker Mason Crosby suffering an injured left shoulder. Bradley’s snap on a blocked punt against Houston was a bit high and right. His snap on an almost-blocked punt at San Francisco hit the turf. Scott’s hands have saved Bradley’s bacon a few times.

From 2011 through 2013, Bradley’s football career consisted of tearing ACLs and rehabbing.

“You’re not going to believe me when I tell you,” he said after being drafted in 2018. “I tore it my senior year of high school playing tight end in my right knee; got a cadaver (ligament). I went to Mississippi State as a preferred walk-on at tight end and tore my left ACL the second practice of fall camp my true freshman year. Rehabbed, got back, and then my right ACL gave out on me the second practice of my first spring.”

While rehabbing from the third ACL, a teammate said, “Why are you still here? You’re never going to play here.” Bradley, a walk-on tight end at the time, shifted to long snapper – the position his father played in college.

“(Mississippi State coach Dan) Mullen was just like, ‘Why don’t we switch you to long-snapper and you can start working on that?’ So, long-snapper was just kind of my last bus stop,” said Bradley, who was put on scholarship as a junior in 2016. “If it wasn’t for long-snapping, I would no longer be playing football and certainly wouldn’t be getting drafted by the Green Bay Packers.”

Countdown to Packers Training Camp

Feature: Bronson Kaufusi's position change

Training Camp schedule

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29 Days Until Training Camp: First-year starting QBs

28 Days: Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and top running back tandems

27 Days: Record-setting red-zone dominance

26 Days: In Wisconsin sports, misery loves company

25 Days: Matt LaFleur's record-setting start

24 Days: The triumph of turnovers and the one that got away

23 Days: Jaire Alexander the Great

22 Days: Green Bay's record-setting second quarter

21 Days: Aaron Jones' place in NFL history

20 Days: How many kicks has Crosby missed since 2018 at Detroit?

19 Days: Eliminating big-play passes

18 Days: Za'Darius Smith finds motivation, sacks quarterbacks

Ranking the Roster

Nos. 52-54: Yosh Nijman, Ben Braden, Simon Stepaniak

No. 55: Cole Van Lanen

Nos. 56-58: Isaiah McDuffie, Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai

Nos. 59-61: Kurt Benkert, Juwann Winfree, Malik Taylor

Nos. 62-64: Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams, Isaac Nauta

Nos. 65-67: Ka'dar Hollman, Kabion Ento, Stanford Samuels

Nos. 68-70: Jake Hanson and two specialist challengers

Nos. 71-74: Christian Uphoff, Henry Black, Innis Gaines, Jake Dolegala

Nos. 75-77: Coy Cronk, Willington Previlon, Jack Heflin

Nos. 78-80: Delontae Scott, Carlo Kemp, Bronson Kaufusi

No. 81: WR Bailey Gaither

Nos. 82-84: WRs Reggie Begelton, Chris Blair, DeAndre Thompkins

Nos. 85-88: LBs Ray Wilborn, Scoota Harris; OL Zach Johnson, Jacob Capra

No. 89: G Jon Dietzen

No. 90: K JJ Molson