Analysis: Why tight end Robert Tonyan deserves spot on Packers' roster

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan (85) makes a touchdown catch during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.

​​​​​​Robert Tonyan played his way onto the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster this summer.

The first-year tight end finished training camp as the Packers’ third-best tight end, and if keeping him means cutting eight-year veteran Lance Kendricks, then the Packers should do it.

Tonyan, a converted college receiver from Indiana State, caught four passes on four targets Thursday night at Kansas City to finish the preseason with eight receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns. His chemistry with No. 3 quarterback Tim Boyle was obvious against the Chiefs.

In a sign that the Packers think highly of him, Tonyan didn’t even play in the second half of the preseason finale.

The question is whether Tonyan is a good enough blocker for the position. The Packers list him at 237 pounds, but he recently said he’s closer to 250, and based on Thursday night, he’s at least adequate in that role.

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Put it this way: He already blocks better than former Packers tight end Richard Rodgers, and the Packers kept Rodgers around for four years. Tonyan’s hands appear to be just as good as Rodgers’, and Tonyan is the faster and better athlete. That’s not bad for a guy the Packers picked up off the street and signed to their practice squad last year.

What Tonyan did at Kansas City wasn’t much different than how he has performed in camp while taking backup reps. It’s hard to remember any drops. He seemed to get open plenty and always caught the ball. He also showed the ability to catch jump balls on short fades in the end zone, as he did in Week 2 of the preseason against Pittsburgh.

Kendricks, on the other hand, had an up-and-down camp. He’s the more polished run blocker, no question. But he has had his share of drops, including in the end zone in Week 3 at Oakland, and at age 30 has lost a step.

One way to look at it is, if backup Marcedes Lewis gets hurt, who would be the better replacement? Tonyan. The character of the two tight-end grouping would change, because the 34-year-old Lewis is a superior blocker. Neither Tonyan nor Kendricks comes close to him in that role, but Tonyan could add more to the passing game than either.

With the way the roster is shaking down, the Packers very well might keep only three tight ends. Jimmy Graham and Lewis are locks. If it comes down to it, the Packers should keep Tonyan over Kendricks.

Camp conclusions

Following is a look at some other camp and position observations heading into final cuts this weekend:

» Boyle did enough in extended playing time against the Chiefs to keep as a third quarterback.

The Taysom Hill lesson from last year is fresh in the Packers’ mind. Also remember that two years ago they kept Joe Callahan on the cut to 53, and Boyle is a better NFL prospect than Callahan could ever have dreamed of being.

In the first half, when playing with Tonyan at tight end and some of the better backups at receiver, Boyle looked like an NFL quarterback. He led two touchdown drives and converted three third downs in the passing game. He stood tall in the pocket and delivered several strikes.

Things got ugly after that. He made several bad decisions, threw two interceptions and could have had one or two more. That was jarring, because he didn’t throw an interception in a game or 11-on-11 drills in practice until the final week of camp, then threw two in practice last week and two more against the Chiefs. He had a lot of interceptions in college (13 in 133 passes in three years at UConn, then 13 last season at Eastern Kentucky), so it makes you wonder if he’ll get turnover prone the more he plays.

But he also was playing with bottom-of-the-roster receivers and tight ends in the second half against Kansas City, and you can’t discount how well he’d taken care of the ball up until last week. Then there are his NFL tools. He’s a big (6-4, 232) pocket passer with a strong NFL arm who is a better athlete than you might think.

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Though you wouldn’t guess it by their styles of play, in physical testing Boyle slightly outperformed DeShone Kizer in all five tests coming out of college, though at least for the 40 it must be noted Boyle didn’t attend the NFL scouting combine and thus ran on a different surface than Kizer: 4.77 seconds in the 40 to Kizer’s 4.83, 34 ½-inch vertical to Kizer’s 30 ½, 9-foot-2 broad jump to Kizer’s 8-11, 7.38-second three cone to Kizer’s 7.40, and 4.32-second short shuttle to Kizer’s 4.53.

Boyle is very much a developmental prospect, but the Packers paid for trying to get Hill through to their practice squad last year. Boyle has shown enough, and quarterbacks are so valuable, that they shouldn’t take that chance again. They need a year or two to see if he really might be a viable No. 2 in this league.

» Two of the biggest disappointments in camp were 2017 draft picks Vince Biegel and Montravius Adams. Both had their rookie seasons wrecked by foot injuries but had full offseasons to get back on track. The Packers had to be hoping at least one and maybe both would add to their pass rush, but it didn’t happen.

Biegel plays hard and shows up occasionally in run defense but doesn’t have a distinguishing ability as a pass rusher. Adams, likewise, seemed to make a play or two in each preseason game where he’d shed a block, move down the line and tackle a running back for no gain. But then he’d disappear for long stretches and didn’t show pop or explosiveness off the ball.

» Don’t discount the possibility of the Packers cutting J’Mon Moore. Yes, he’s a fourth-round draft pick, and they haven’t released a rookie fourth-rounder on the cut to 53 since receiver Cory Rodgers in 2006. But ranking the performance and potential of the three drafted rookie receivers at the end of camp, Marquez Valdes-Scantling finishes first, Equanimious St. Brown second and Moore third.

Moore has had inconsistent hands all camp. Against the Chiefs, he dropped a pass down the sideline and failed to read a back-shoulder throw on a night when he caught only two passes on seven targets for 13 yards.

Aside from quarterback, receiver is as tough a position as there is for a rookie to contribute in the NFL. The guess here is, no one would claim Moore if the Packers cut him, so they could get him through to their practice squad if they want the roster spot for another position.

» The Packers really don’t have anyone else for their return game, so they probably need to keep Trevor Davis on the 53. He didn’t have a big night as a returner in his 2018 debut against the Chiefs and fumbled on a punt return, but he’s a little more explosive and decisive than anyone else the Packers have tried in that role.

If that’s the way the Packers go, the final one or two receiver spots, depending on whether they keep six or seven, come down to Jake Kumerow, whose chances don’t look good because of a shoulder injury, St. Brown and Moore.

» One of the most impressive young, up-and-coming players in camp has been third-year receiver Geronimo Allison. He’s made several catches in the preseason where he’s dug out low throws or displayed excellent body control along the sidelines. Then against the Chiefs he improvised and ran behind the secondary for a 31-yard touchdown.

» The Packers have a huge hole on defense at coverage linebacker while rookie Oren Burks recovers from a shoulder injury that reported could sideline him for the first week or two of the regular season. He’s their only inside linebacker who can stay with tight ends and running backs over the middle.

In his Packers debut against the Chiefs, newly acquired Antonio Morrison was physical and tackled well, and probably warrants a roster spot at inside linebacker. But he’s limited and an early-down player only. The fourth roster spot between undrafted rookie Greer Martini and first-year player Ahmad Thomas really is a tossup. Martini was better on special teams, Thomas a little better in coverage.

Really, with Burks out the Packers might have to regularly use one of two safeties, Josh Jones or Jermaine Whitehead, at inside linebacker.

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