The Green Bay Packers have found a real weapon in tight end Robert Tonyan, but what is a reasonable expectation for his production in 2020?
Most of the NFL world learned the name Robert Tonyan on Monday Night Football in Week 4.
Here and there, some folks knew the name of the former Indiana State Sycamore, with varying levels of expectations. Some Packers fans entered 2020 with the thought that he could complement now second-year tight end Jace Sternberger, a handful of Seahawks fans recall his long touchdown grab in 2018 and NFL Network’s Peter Schrager was leading his hype train.
Robert. Freakin'. Tonyan.
— GMFB (@gmfb) October 6, 2020
It’s safe to say that Tonyan has surpassed most of the wildest expectations for his production already, especially after relentlessly punishing the Atlanta Falcons defense on Monday. His effort was especially important with the Packers’ top two receivers, Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, both out injured.
The fact that Green Bay has unearthed another reliable weapon to pair with those two receivers and the rest of the offensive playmakers should be a terrifying sight for the rest of the NFL.
While he’s been sharp to start the season, there is a long way to go in 2020. What sort of production can we expect from the former undrafted free agent? When you compare what he’s already done to the efficiency coach Matt LaFleur has gotten out of tight ends in the past, Packers fans should get excited about what No. 85 could be in store for this year.
First, a look at Tonyan’s numbers this year. Through the first quarter of the season he has been targeted 14 times and has caught 13 of them, racking up 173 yards and five touchdowns. Granted, a major chunk of that production came in one game, but that was when he was needed the most. You can’t discount situational importance and value.
If you extrapolate those numbers over the course of the year, that production is staggering by Packers standards. His “on pace” numbers are 52 receptions, 692 yards and 20 touchdowns. That last number is the least probable of any of them, but the first two are mouth-watering estimations, given Green Bay’s recent track record at the position.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 6, 2020
Those numbers would look similar to those posted by Jimmy Graham in 2018 for a 6-9-1 Green Bay squad, when the current Bear caught 55 balls for 636 yards and just two touchdowns. Richard Rodgers caught 58 passes during 2015, although he averaged under nine yards per reception.
To find any other season in recent history remotely like the one Tonyan is on pace for, you have to go back to 2012, when Jermichael Finley had 61 receptions for 667 yards, but he also caught just two touchdowns.
Obviously, the Packers have struggled to find top-end production at tight end in recent memory. That’s part of the reason Tonyan is so enticing: He still has plenty of potential and he’s already paying dividends in this offense.
His numbers are also something of an anomaly, given what other tight ends have done in terms of sheer numbers under LaFleur’s other offenses.
Start with the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, where LaFleur was in his second year as their quarterbacks coach. We start that year because, like we are seeing with the Packers this season, the second year in this scheme is the key year for growth.
These three tight ends, the ones who saw the most meaningful time for the Falcons that year, totaled 54 receptions on 77 targets for 745 yards and eight touchdowns. That isn’t terrible for a unit, but is just slightly more efficient than what Tonyan is on pace for on his own. It should be noted that Kyle Shanahan was the play caller for that offense.
We move on to the 2017 Los Angeles Rams, LaFleur’s first year as an offensive coordinator, although he still wasn’t calling plays; that responsibility belonged to Sean McVay.
Fewer guys factored into the mix for the Rams that season, and their joint numbers (41 receptions, 539 yards, three touchdowns) are relatively pedestrian. Given what he’s shown so far this season, those totals might be a realistic hope for Tonyan to accomplish on his own.
Lastly, we get to the 2019 Tennessee Titans, when LaFleur finally got to take over as a play caller.
It’s hard to know if these stats would have looked any different if Delanie Walker hadn’t been hurt that season, but they line up similarly to the two years prior at LaFleur’s other stops. The numbers don’t jump off the page, and neither do the names.
What can we learn from all this data?
Most notably, tight ends haven’t been major producers in LaFleur’s past, whether he was calling plays or not. You can also see that production was spread out fairly evenly among multiple bodies.
The Packers have done a good job getting numerous offensive weapons involved in a small sample size this year, although that’s partially out of necessity due to injuries. Tonyan has been the most consistent tight end option, though, and there’s a good chance that doesn’t change any time soon.
Sternberger is still trying to get up to game speed. Marcedes Lewis will make the occasional play through the air, but his biggest value to Green Bay is as a blocker. Josiah Deguara is done for the year, and John Lovett is a total wild card coming out of the backfield. If the Packers want to get the tight end involved, Tonyan will be the go-to guy.
Don’t forget, the best quarterback LaFleur has ever had is playing with Tonyan, too. If he trusts you, Aaron Rodgers will find a way to get you the ball, and that trust has clearly been established by now.
He’s big, he’s strong and he’s off to the best start a Packers fan could have hoped for when it comes to a tight end this year. Robert Tonyan probably won’t put up nearly 100 yards and multiple touchdowns in every game this season, but he’s giving Green Bay a reason to believe he can be another reliable pass-catching option for an offense that can’t get enough of them. Matt LaFleur may not have had a true No. 1 tight end with most teams he’s coached in the past, but he’s found one in Green Bay with Tonyan.