Packers Make Final Decision on Free-Agent TE’s Future

Tonyan Tender Shell

Getty Robert Tonyan #85 of the Green Bay Packers catches a touchdown pass during the second quarter of their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field on December 06, 2020 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The Green Bay Packers have locked down their No. 1 tight end.

According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are placing a second-round tender worth $3.384 million on the 26-year-old restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any other offers Tonyan might receive in free agency or receive a high level of compensation if he leaves.

Tonyan had a breakout fourth season with the Packers in 2020, catching 11 touchdowns to tie Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce for most among all NFL tight ends. He also caught 52 of his 59 targets to finish the season as one of Aaron Rodgers’ most efficient passing targets, gaining a career-high total of 586 yards.

The Packers are now sitting somewhere between about $8-9 million over the salary cap for the 2021 season after a busy last month of cutting veteran players and restructuring contracts; however, the exact number won’t be known until full contract details are revealed for Aaron Jones’ extension and Billy Turner’s restructure.

The new league year will officially begin at 3 p.m. CT on March 17.

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Packers Retain Massive Weapon With Tonyan

The Packers have waited a long time to find a red-zone weapon like Tonyan for their tight end spot. Add in the three years they have spent developing him from an undrafted practice-squad talent into a bona fide NFL starter and the decision to bring him back is a no-brainer — even at a higher cost.

Prior to Tonyan’s big year, a Packers tight end hadn’t scored double-digit touchdowns in a single season since Keith Jackson did so in 1996. Tonyan found the end zone more than twice as often in 2020 as Jimmy Graham (5) did in his entire two-season stay with the Packers from 2018-19, while his 11 touchdowns also outdid the career-best totals from some of Green Bay’s better previous tight ends, including Jermichael Finley (8) and Jared Cook (9 — in New Orleans).

What Future Awaits Packers Remaining Tight Ends?

The Packers have reached into their pockets and found the money to bring back both their top tight end and top running back for the 2021 season, signing star Aaron Jones to a four-year, $48 million extension on Sunday before the start of the league’s league tampering period for free agency. Much like with Jones in the running back room, though, the Packers’ recommitment to Tonyan could signal the end of the line for some of Green Bay’s other tight ends.

Marcedes Lewis is the Packers’ only other tight end set to hit free agency this offseason and has given them enough reason on his blocking abilities alone to warrant some consideration for a return, but Green Bay allocating more than $3 million for Tonyan makes re-signing the 37-year-old veteran unlikely. Even if Lewis agreed to return for the veteran minimum, the Packers may simply want to go younger with three tight ends — including a pair of third-round picks — waiting in the wings on their roster.

The freshly-tendered Tonyan will become the Packers’ hands-down starting tight end for 2021 if Lewis is allowed to walk, but there should still be plenty of interesting competition behind him between Josiah Deguara, Jace Sternberger and Dominique Dafney.

Deguara was the Packers’ third-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft and showed flashes during his limited snaps in last year’s season opener, but two injuries — including a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 — left him watching the majority of his rookie season from injured reserve. If recovery goes well, Deguara could step into an expanded role for the offense in Year 2 … if he wins the battles in training camp.

Sternberger will need to hope he can challenge him after a forgettable second season with the Packers. Like Deguara, the 2019 third-round tight end had lost the majority of his rookie year to a significant injury and showed potential in limited moments of his first NFL season. Sternberger, however, struggled to stand out in his second season in Green Bay after some early-year mistakes. He caught 12 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown before the Packers sidelined him altogether, making him a healthy scratch in all six of their final games — including both playoff games.

There is also Dafney, a 23-year-old undrafted rookie who joined the Packers’ practice squad around the time Deguara went on IR and earned a regular role with the offense on the active roster in just two months. He caught a pass in each of the Packers’ final two regular-season games, including a 13-yard touchdown against Chicago in Week 17, and also proved formidable as a blocker and special teams player. If Lewis is gone for next year, Dafney could have a golden opportunity to step in as Green Bay’s top blocking tight end.

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