GREEN BAY — The competition for playing time this summer won’t just be tight end vs. tight end during Green Bay Packers’ training camp.
Given the Packers’ diversified offensive scheme under new head coach Matt LaFleur — and the philosophy that the play-caller needs to find the best personnel group to use most extensively — the tight ends will also be competing with other packages of running backs and wide receivers to get more time on the field.
In some versions of the LaFleur-Sean McVay-Kyle Shanahan system, a two tight-end set is the norm. In others, it’s one tight end with three wide receivers. At this point, the Packers not only have to determine the pecking order at tight end but also just how many will be on the field and how often.
For instance, LaFleur explained that McVay’s Los Angeles Rams favored “11” personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers. But in his one year as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator and play-caller after working under McVay in 2017, LaFleur experimented with a host of groupings – “12” (one back, two tight ends, two receivers), “13” (one back, three tight ends, one receiver), “21” (two backs, one tight end, two receivers) and “22” (two backs, two tight ends, one receiver) last season.
“It just comes down to (preference),” LaFleur said “Like last year, we used Luke Stocker in (a fullback) role in Tennessee. He’s more of a traditionally a tight end. The year before in L.A., we were in ‘11’ personnel.
“It’s about finding our best 11 and putting those guys on the field.”
The question for the Packers is how many tight ends will merit being among those best 11 — especially with two aging veterans (Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis) in front of a host of young, unproven commodities (Robert Tonyan, rookie third-round pick Jace Sternberger and first-year players Evan Baylis and Pharoah McKever).
“We have the younger guys, and then we have the veterans. It’s so hard to, from my standpoint, to sit back and say I wouldn’t love to have some (more) veterans like that,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Those guys, we’re very lucky to have them. Both (Lewis and Graham) have been great pros in this league for a long time. They understand how to work. They understand how to be in the locker room. They’re great examples on the field. And they’re intelligent football players. That’s just so hard to find.
“So, we’re so lucky to have those guys, and it shows those younger guys that they need to keep being a great pro and keep learning. For Jace and Bobby T and all those guys, I think it’s a great opportunity for them to learn from those guys.”
Graham’s leadership and mentoring skills may be swell, but the Packers certainly need more production from him — by Graham’s own admission.
“Obviously last year was disappointing for everybody. I’m not used to losing. I don’t think anybody here is,” said Graham, who came to Green Bay on a three-year, $30 million deal — including a $5 million roster bonus the Packers paid him in March. “And for me, it was not a good year.”
If Graham, at age 32, can be the threat in the red zone he was expected to be last season — after 10 touchdown receptions in Seattle in 2017, he had just two last year for the Packers — and Lewis gives them the blocking tight end LaFleur’s commitment to the run game requires, it’ll be up to Tonyan and Sternberger to decide how many more snaps there are to be had at the position.
“The impressive part is to see Marcedes and Jimmy talk to the younger guys on the side in practice, in the meeting room, that they’re able to give their two cents on some things that may have given them an issue early on in their career,” tight ends coach Justin Outten explained. “They’ve been really willing to help those guys. Talking to Marcedes and Jimmy, they’ve been very professional as far as the change. They understand that they’re seeing more of the field, they’re being asked to step up in certain roles that they may not have been in the last couple years. and then it’s exciting for them, because I think it’s a new leaf for them.”
Here’s a closer look at the tight ends as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice next Thursday morning:
80 Jimmy Graham: 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, age 32, 10th year from Miami (Fla.).
89 Marcedes Lewis: 6-6, 267, 35, 14th year from UCLA.
49 Robert Tonyan: 6-5, 237, 25, second year from Indiana State.
87 Jace Sternberger: 6-4, 251, 23, rookie from Texas A&M.
49 Evan Baylis: 6-5, 250, 25, first year from Oregon.
84 Pharoah McKever: 6-6, 259, 25, first year from Florida International.
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How much does Graham have left?
Two seasons ago in Seattle, Graham caught just 57 passes for 520 yards (9.1-yard average) but had 10 touchdown catches. Last year, in his first season in Green Bay, he caught 55 passes for 636 yards (11.6-yard average) but managed only two touchdown catches. Those numbers are a far cry from his heyday in New Orleans, where he caught at least 85 passes for four consecutive years and had huge seasons in 2011 (99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs) and 2013 (86 receptions, 1,215 yards, 16 touchdowns).
Downward-trending statistics certainly aren’t encouraging, but clearly the Packers are of the belief that he has plenty of football left in him, even with his impending 33rd birthday in November. In fairness to Graham, Rodgers’ knee injury in the opener curtailed his practice time — something that he and Graham surely would have benefited from as they got to know each other’s games and preferences. With Rodgers expected to see more preseason action this summer, the quarterback figures to put a greater emphasis on getting on the same page with Graham than ever before.
“Guys like myself, Jimmy, who have been in systems for a long time, it’s a different learning curve,” Rodgers admitted when asked about adjusting to his receivers in a new system. “It’s just about consistency with the alignment and assignment and then making the plays that are there.”
On the rise
Among the greatest mysteries of last season is why Tonyan didn’t play more. Graham wasn’t himself, Lewis was little more than an extra offensive lineman brought in to block, and ex-University of Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks’ contributions were inconsistent. Despite his highlight-reel 54-yard touchdown from Rodgers at Seattle on Nov. 15, his snaps didn’t spike as many expected, and he ended up playing only 67 snaps all season — fewest among tight ends.
Now, the converted quarterback/wide receiver might be in line for a greater role, especially after the club opted not to re-sign Kendricks in free agency.
“The video was minimal, but you see flashes of some things that get you excited,” Outten said of Tonyan. “And then working with him this offseason, you could see those flashes coming out. It’s going to be a rep thing with him. Obviously, he’s still learning the tight end position as far as putting your hand in the ground, the run game part of it. But the great thing about him is he’s so eager and willing and asks questions all the time and wants to be good at it. So if you are willing and able, you have a chance.
“He’s been really, really good as far as watching video, being on practice, notes and asking questions that may not be pertaining to other guys who have been here or have done it many times. So he’s been pretty open with asking and getting things done.”
Player to watch
The Packers decided to issue No. 87 — Jordy Nelson’s old number — to Sternberger, having held it out of the rotation last season after Nelson’s 10-year Packers career had ended with his March 2018 release. But while the Packers aren’t expecting him to be the second coming of Nelson, it’s hard to gauge what the team is expecting from him given a vagabond college football existence that saw him bounce from Kansas to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M junior college to Texas A&M, where in his only season with the Aggies he caught 48 passes for 832 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns as a redshirt junior last year. Not only is he inexperienced, but the new offensive scheme isn’t exactly elementary.
“Coming into the NFL, and there’s so many things put on your plate in this offense, the acclimation part of it just needs to (speed up) in order to help out early on,” Outten said. “There’s a lot of communication that goes on between me and him, just being able to take advantage of every second in this building with us. And then when he’s not here, being the pro that he is, he’s taking the time on his own to really dive into the details of it.”
Lewis missed most of the offseason program while completing his coursework to earn his college degree from UCLA, and when Lewis was present, he looked heavier than last year to multiple reporters watching him. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine the Packers moving on from the veteran given the unproven nature of the rest of the position and his relationship with new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who coached him in Jacksonville.
Nevertheless, as the season goes on, the younger tight ends could challenge his playing time, although they would have to prove they can be effective blockers since that’s Lewis’ area of expertise at this point in his career.
“I’m a big fan of Marcedes. He did a great job when we were at Jacksonville and missed him when he left,” Hackett said. “I’ve known him for years. My brother-in-law played with him at UCLA. For what he can do at the point of contact in the pass protection game, for us, he was a threat in the red zone at Jacksonville and all those things are things we want to ramp up with him. I think that’s going to be some great things for him.”