GREEN BAY – Robert Tonyan had one of the highlights of the 2018 season for the Green Bay Packers' offense, hauling in a 54-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers in Seattle. The second-year tight end finished his rookie season with just three more catches and 23 more yards, but showed enough athleticism and potential to feel he could make a jump in year two.
Enter a new coaching staff and offensive system that can highlight the position, and it’s natural to think Tonyan could push for more playing time.
“The video was minimal, but you got to see flashes of some things that got you excited,” new Packers tight ends coach Justin Outten said. “And then working with him this offseason, you could see those flashes coming out. It’s going to be a rep thing with him.”
The door for more reps was opened a bit during organized team activities and then minicamp this week when veteran Marcedes Lewis missed practices. The OTA period was voluntary, and Lewis was excused by head coach Matt LaFleur during minicamp to finish up his degree at UCLA.
So, there was the 25-year-old Tonyan, out on the practice field taking first-team offensive reps either with fellow tight end Jimmy Graham in certain packages, or as the lone tight end.
“It has given me a good chance to get in a lot more with Aaron and build that chemistry and build that trust with him,” Tonyan said. “I think that’s been beneficial to me. I know it’s not as easy on Jimmy being older. But it is a new offense for both me and Jimmy so it is nice to also get me and Jimmy on the field at the same time and build more on-field chemistry with that in this offense.
“We want Marcedes out there because we like being around him but overall it’s going great.”
Outten noted how much extra work Tonyan is putting in with film study and in asking questions of both the coaches and Graham and Lewis.
“It’s just about reps,” Tonyan said. “Especially with the new offense, the more you do it; you can see it and study it a bunch but once you’re on the field you have to do it and play fast and do it to how Aaron and coach LaFleur want it.”
Spriggs hits reset button
This is an important season for Jason Spriggs, whom the Packers traded up to take in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Indiana. The 6-6, 301-pound swing tackle has played 36 games over his first three seasons, including nine starts, but has found himself used as a pinch-hitter at both tackle positions rather than as a full-time piece of the offensive line.
Entering his contract year, the 25-year-old feels like he is getting a new start with a new offensive blocking scheme and coaches.
“Oh yeah, anytime you have new coaches on the field, especially when it’s a whole new staff, you better be on your ‘A’ game. It just is what it is," Spriggs said. "Whether they’ve seen your tape or not, what they see with their eyes (matters). If they look at your tape and you’re an all-star and then in practice you’re – I was going to use a specific word – it’s not going to (reflect) very well.”
Spriggs appeared to injure his left elbow in practice Tuesday but finished out the session. He dressed but only rode an exercise bicycle Wednesday for what LaFleur called “precautionary” reasons.
Getting reps at both tackle spots in practice is nothing new, but Spriggs feels that with an offense that will be reliant on an athletic blocking scheme such as the outside zone, he will be able to maximize his athletic ability.
“I don’t have any problem with it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not going to fight it at all. I’m cool with it, especially coming out of IU. All the running techniques, just getting out in space, running, that’s what we did. I couldn’t be happier.”
Johnson eyes an opening at fullback
The signing of Malcolm Johnson was a relatively small transaction last November, a late addition to the practice squad just days before Mike McCarthy was dismissed. But he not only finished out the season but was brought back in 2019 after the coaching change. And, it makes perfect sense: He might have the most experience with the playbook of any player in the Packers' locker room.
Johnson spent the offseason and training camp in San Francisco last year under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Prior to moving on to coordinator roles in Los Angeles and Tennessee, LaFleur spent eight years coaching under Shanahan.
Like Shanahan, LaFleur likes to use the fullback in his offense and Johnson sees an opportunity to compete for a roster spot, along with fellow fullback Danny Vitale.
“With the transition of football and the fullback, some teams don’t even have a fullback on their roster. It’s always welcoming and always feels good to know that your team is planning on using the fullback and they’re looking for a fullback.”
Johnson, who is listed at 6-1 and 231 pounds, played tight end at Mississippi State before being drafted by Cleveland in 2015, catching 79 career passes for 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’m excited about camp,” Johnson said. “This offense has some different things in it that the fullback can be used a lot more than others. So I’m very excited going forward with training camp and just showing coach whatever he allows me to do, showing coach I can do it.”
Linsley sits out again
Starting center Corey Linsley dressed for Wednesday’s practice but did not participate. LaFleur said he was dealing with “stiffness” Tuesday, which led to Linsley getting some reps off. Also sitting out of most of the activities Wednesday were corner Kevin King, running back Tra Carson, linebacker Ty Summers, cornerback Javien Hamilton, safety Josh Jones, offensive tackle Jason Spriggs and defensive lineman Mike Daniels.
The Packers will gather for an unspecified team-building activity Thursday on the scheduled final day of minicamp.