A Key at Tight End: It’s Sternberger, for Starters

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was late in the season, with the Green Bay Packers making their run toward the NFC Championship Game. Even while being thrust into a bigger role due to fullback Danny Vitale’s injury, rookie tight end Jace Sternberger was eagerly looking ahead to 2020.

When Sternberger, a third-round draft pick, injured an ankle in the preseason finale, an injury that ultimately sent him to injured reserve, he reached out to Joe Tofferi, a Wausau, Wis.-based trainer recommended by Sternberger’s agent, Mike McCartney. Tofferi has worked with some of McCartney’s high-profile clients, including Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. A month later, Sternberger’s ankle was healed. With Sternberger (and Aaron Jones) meeting with Tofferi twice a week at Sternberger’s place in Green Bay, he dropped 18 pounds by the end of the season.

“Joe knows his (stuff). He’s a beast,” Sternberger said before the playoff game against Seattle while excitedly showing his workout program for the offseason. “I’ve always been athletic so I’ve always gotten away things. In the NFL, that’s not enough. I’m more athletic now than I was last year because I’m more flexible, I’m moving better, I’m doing all the right things. It’s really exciting.”

The Packers need Sternberger to be the playmaker he was at Texas A&M, when he caught 48 passes for 832 yards (17.3 average) and led the nation’s tight ends with 10 touchdowns in 2018. Jimmy Graham, an overpaid disappointment, was released. That created a 622-snap void atop the depth chart. While Marcedes Lewis will happily handle the dirty work, there are no sure things among a tight end corps that includes Robert Tonyan and third-round pick Josiah Deguara.

When general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Sternberger, he projected him as a player who could create mismatches in the passing game but be a work in progress in the running game. Ultimately, 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. His development was stunted by a concussion early in training camp and the aforementioned ankle injury. He didn’t catch a pass (one target) in six games on the active roster but grabbed three passes for 15 yards and one touchdown in the playoffs.

“Getting Jace back towards the end was great,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said recently. “With Jace, I think it’s just being consistent, understanding the system and understanding his role, where he fits so he can get on the field and understand what he needs to do to get his job done. Because he has an element of speed that’s very impressive. He’s got fearlessness, he’s very aggressive. So, he has a lot of intangibles, and I just think being able to be consistent, both being available and understanding what he needs to accomplish on the field, is going to be huge. If he gets that, he’ll be a guy that potentially can help us.”

A KEY AT EACH POSITION

Quarterback: Too many incompletions

Receiver: Too many drops

Running back: How will the carries be divided?

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