Four active tight ends could open doors for Packers' offense

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers head east to take on the New York Giants, who have lost seven straight games and are ranked No. 27 in the NFL against the pass. On paper, it looks like Aaron Rodgers and the offense will be able to “get well” against a struggling team. It’s the first of three games against teams with a combined 10 wins, including two straight at Lambeau Field after this weekend.

Such favorable matchups could open the door for head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to start working in additional offensive personnel, including second-year tight end Robert Tonyan and rookie tight end Jace Sternberger.

“To me it’s all about how can we put people in certain situations to exploit matchups,” LaFleur said. “That’s really what this game comes down to, is how can you put your best (out there) and if you see a weakness in that defense how do we put our guy in position to go attack that? Certainly personnel always is a driving factor in your decision-making.”

Tight end Robert Tonyan (85) catches an over the shoulder pass during Packers family night Friday, August 2, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

It would require a few things to happen. One, LaFleur and special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga would have to feel good about having four tight ends active. That has happened twice — against Denver and Philadelphia when Evan Baylis was the fourth tight end.

“I would love to,” Hackett said of having four tight ends active. “For my perspective you always like to have as many offensive guys as you can and that allows you to do a lot of different things. It’s obviously the whole team and special teams are always incorporated in that along with defense.”

In those two games, Baylis played one offensive snap, however. Secondly, the coaches have to feel confident that Tonyan and Sternberger can execute all facets of the offense in practice. What has helped there is Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis are given veteran rest days.

“Those guys get a big bulk of the practice reps just with how we want to preserve Marcedes and Jimmy, so they do get a lot of practice reps,” LaFleur said. “And they’ve been improving.”

What has hurt the two young tight ends in that regard is Sternberger missed most of training camp with a concussion and then was on injured reserve and couldn’t fully practice until after Week 8. And in that time Tonyan was injured against Dallas on Oct. 6 and couldn’t fully participate in practice or play until last Sunday  in San Francisco.

“I think everyone wants to be a part of the offense and everyone wants to be part of something great,” Tonyan said. “I think that’s just good for the competition in the room — and with Evan, the five us — all of us being skilled and we’re good at what we do. A lot of us bring different things to the table. So we have a wide variety of talent in terms of what we can do. I just want to help any way coach puts me and I just want to be there for Marcedes and Jimmy. I don’t want to be the guy coming into the game and it’s like a down slope from Jimmy and Marcedes. That helps me get better every day, is holding myself accountable to do good for them which in turn makes me do good for everyone.”

The third and final part of that equation is a willingness by LaFleur to take game reps from his veterans and experience any growing pains that go with that. To date, Tonyan has played 111 offensive snaps and Sternberger has just 14.

“I feel like I’ve made really good progress and I’m really confident, but I’m in a really good tight end room,” Sternberger said. “Everyone else is doing really well at it so whenever opportunity knocks, I’m going to be there. I don’t want to let anyone else in that tight end position room down. If I work my way up so we do have four tight ends, that’s our goal. That makes us look better because all four are taking care of our business.”

Veldheer introduced

After the Packers placed a waiver claim on veteran tackle Jared Veldheer on Tuesday, the 32-year-old tackle passed his physical and was officially made a member of the Packers before practice Friday. Wearing No. 68, the 6-8, 321-pound, 10-year veteran was then taken off the retired/reserve list and added to the exempt/commissioner permission list.

That means he can practice without the team having to make an immediate roster move. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur indicated the team has a “couple weeks” to decide on if Veldheer can indeed help the team in 2019.

“We always are in constant communication, and we’ll get him going and see where he’s at physically and mentally,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s a pretty smart guy so I’ve got no concerns about his ability to pick up what we’re trying to do. So, it’s kind of just wait and see.”

Veldheer retired from the New England Patriots in March, citing issues with his hips. At the time, he couldn’t see himself working through the offseason program and playing into February after signing a $3.5 million deal with incentives.

As a taller player, Veldheer said one of his strengths is his bend and ability to use his leverage — so having his hips recover over the last 10 months was a driving force in his decision to return.

“When strength was gained there, going back to the movements that might not have been done before that and build off those ones and really focus on any kind of physical weaknesses,” he said. “That’s really what I’ve been doing the past several months. It’s been great. I feel like I’m in great shape. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to play.”

Once he informed the Patriots of that decision, they elected not to make room for him on the roster. On Wednesday the Packers claimed him and he practiced Friday. Veldheer said he had a late start to the 2013 season after tearing a triceps, so he feels he can readjust to the game quickly.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, so there’s a lot of things that are ingrained as far as movements and all that stuff,” he said. “Really, it’s just getting back out on the field and picking up where you left off and knocking some of the dust off.”

Bulaga questionable; five Giants out

Packers starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga practiced for a second straight day Friday and was listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.

“We’ll see how he feels (Saturday),” LaFleur said. “Because a lot of times ... the soreness or whatever, won’t show up for another day.”

Joining Bulaga with the questionable designation was cornerback Tony Brown, who was limited in Friday’s practice after suffering a heel injury. He was not listed on the injury report all week. Safety Will Redmond (foot) is also questionable.

The New York Giants will be missing four starters and a key backup. Starting tight end Evan Engram (foot) and his backup Rhett Ellison (concussion) were ruled out. Also ruled out were wide receiver Golden Tate (concussion), safety Jabrill Peppers (back) and long snapper Zak DeOssie (knee/wrist).

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