As long as tight end Jace Sternberger does his homework, there is a much larger role in the Green Bay Packers offense waiting for him next season.
Sternberger recently told Peter Bukowski on the Locked on Packers podcast that head coach Matt LaFleur tasked him with improving his releases off of the line of scrimmage this offseason and has intentions to play him “in the slot a lot” during the 2020 season as a moving piece of the offense.
“I had a really positive exit meeting about what was about to take place, what could happen in free agency, what couldn’t happen and what they had (for) their visions of me,” Sternberger said. “Coach LaFleur in our meeting, he just told me I need to be working on my releases because I’ll be in the slot a lot this year and moving around.
“That could help take my game to the next level. All my releases right now are just off of athleticism, but really … getting a release tree would be really beneficial for me.”
A third-round pick in 2019, Sternberger impressed in last year’s training camp and seemed destined to ascend to a larger pass-catching role in the offense before a preseason ankle injury landed him on injured reserve for the first half of his rookie season. He finished the regular season without recording a single catch but flashed his potential once again during the postseason, catching his first NFL touchdown pass during the NFC championship game.
The path is clear for Sternberger to climb to the top of the depth chart in 2020 after the Packers parted ways with former starter Jimmy Graham ahead of free agency, having won the confidence of his head coach as well as some of the veterans of his craft.
“He’s going to be a good one,” Packers veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis told Wes Hodkiewicz of Packers.com back in January. “He’s nasty and you need that to be in this league. I’m proud of him and where he’s at right now.”
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Can Sternberger Revitalize TE Spot for Packers?
While the Packers could do something unexpected in the NFL draft that shakes up their current tight end situation, Sternberger appears to be the way forward after no new free agents were brought in to beef up the position this offseason. But while Sternberger should become the guy, there are plenty of risks associated with crowning an inexperienced second-year player the team’s starting tight end.
The Packers have struggled to get the desired production out of their tight end spot for the past several seasons, spending the past two seasons watching Graham regress at a time where standout receivers were in shortage. He finished last year with his worst receiving numbers since his 2010 rookie season, catching 38 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
For Sternberger to flip the script, he will need to zoom right past that benchmark, especially in terms of red-zone production — where Graham was supposed to excel. His athleticism gives him a solid foundation to make impact plays, but polishing his technique has to become a priority during an unprecedented offseason with the coronavirus pandemic restricting in-person team activities.
Don’t forget about Robert Tonyan, either. A core muscle injury restricted him down the stretch of his second full season with the Packers in 2019 and minimized his impact, but Tonyan could still push Sternberger for playing time or, if both thrive, add another dimension to the passing game.