Dougherty: Jace Sternberger facing steep learning curve
You don’t have to look far back in history to find draft picks who were at least more than just fill-ins for the Green Bay Packers’ offense their rookie season.
Two years ago, Aaron Jones was a fifth-round draft pick who brought badly needed juice at running back.
Last year, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown combined for 59 catches and a 15.4-yard average after Jordy Nelson’s offseason departure at receiver.
So this year, can the Packers expect a high draft pick (Jace Sternberger, third round) to upgrade their tight end position, where Father Time is quickly catching up with Jimmy Graham?
Well, they can hope for it, but if Sternberger contributes much he’ll be bucking the odds. History shows that tight end is one of the NFL’s most difficult positions for rookies to make any kind of difference.
A couple of simple stats tell the story.
In the last 10 years, only nine tight ends have caught at least 40 passes in their rookie season – that’s basically one a year. Only 22 have caught even 30 passes.
That’s a sign of the odds against Sternberger being anything more than a bit player in 2019 after he was the sixth tight end to come off the draft board last weekend and 75th player selected overall.
Tight end remains a lesser-valued position in the NFL – it has the lowest franchise-tag tender other than kickers and punters – but seems to be becoming more important in recent years. Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy said just last year that he now considers it a premium position, in large part because rules changes protecting receivers have made big targets in the middle of the field more valuable than ever.
And the best tight ends are putting up big numbers. In the last five years, 15 have caught at least 80 passes. Just last season, two (Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce) topped the 100-catch mark.
But tight end is an especially tough position for rookies, even tougher than receiver and maybe the hardest aside from quarterback. That’s because tight ends have major responsibilities as both receivers and blockers.
They face the same challenge as receivers in adjusting to far more sophisticated passing games than they played in college. Route running is more varied and detailed, there are more reads on the fly against more coverages, and more audibles to know at the line of scrimmage.
On top of that tight ends are quasi-offensive linemen when they line up on the line.
“If you’re a running back you do have to block in blitz pickup, but primarily you’re there to run the ball,” one longtime NFL scout said this week. “A guard is there to block, it’s just a matter of learning the protection. But when you’re a tight end you’re learning the passing game – learning routes – and learning how to block.
“You’re learning (pass) protection – you’re not always going to be going to be out (on routes), so you have to be part of the protection. You’ve got some things that are more detailed there for a young tight end.”
Sternberger also will be playing with a 35-year-old quarterback who has thrown 6,037 passes in games (playoffs included), and countless more in practice. Aaron Rodgers is hardly the only longtime starting quarterback in the league who shows little tolerance for receivers who don’t consistently run the right route. If he doesn’t trust you, he won’t throw it to you, and it can take time to win that trust.
“(The quarterback) wants you to be at a certain place at a certain time based on his drop,” the scout said. “That’s more detailed and more urgent than (in college) running a route, pushing off and getting open.
“We know that from (Tom) Brady. We’ve seen him flip out on everybody as far as running their routes and breaking their routes. When he says nine yards, you break it at nine yards, not 9½, not 8½.”
So what might Sternberger do in 2019?
In his one season at Texas A&M – he transferred there after doing next to nothing in two years at Kansas and then playing at a junior college (Northeast Oklahoma A&M) – he caught 49 passes and showed big-play ability (17.3-yard average per catch). He impressed scouts by playing more athletically than his decent 40 time (4.72 seconds) suggests.
He has the size (6-4, 251) for the position but is far more advanced as a receiver than blocker. He’ll have to improve quickly in coach Matt LaFleur’s zone-run scheme if he wants to be any more productive than the last rookie tight end the Packers drafted this high. Richard Rodgers, a third-rounder in 2014, caught only 20 passes his first year despite playing behind a marginal starter (Andrew Quarless).
Sternberger begins his career behind Graham, who played 74 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, and Robert Tonyan, the former college quarterback and undrafted second-year pro who ran 4.58 coming out of college and flashed some playmaking in training camp last year.
The Packers also re-signed Marcedes Lewis to a $2.1 million deal that included a $500,000 bonus. But whether the 35-year old has anything left in the tank remains to be seen.
Whether Sternberger can become the No. 2 as a rookie, that’s a big wait and see. It depends as much on Tonyan’s improvement as on what Sternberger shows in the next few months.
Either way, this much is true: The Packers need fresh legs at tight end.