GREEN BAY – Robert Tonyan doesn’t need to pinch himself any longer. He’s a legitimate NFL player now, with a full season under his belt and job to do in 2019.
Yet, there was a moment recently that hit home for the Packers’ second-year tight end, when he received a text alert on his group chat with teammates Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, two of the most accomplished active players at Tonyan’s position.
It wasn’t that long ago Tonyan was staring at the same phone, anxiously waiting for a team – any team – to give him a chance after the Detroit Lions cut him in the summer of 2017. Now, he has two former Pro Bowlers checking in on him.
“I’m looking back like, ‘My life has just changed so completely,’” Tonyan said. “I used to be waiting on my agent just to call me for a workout. Now, I have Marcedes and Jimmy, two of the best to ever do it, as two of my close friends.”
Tonyan, 25, was one of the Cinderella stories of Packers camp last summer. After finishing his rookie season on Green Bay’s practice squad, the former Indiana State receiver faced long odds to make the 53-man roster in a crowded tight end room.
Tonyan not only was still learning a new position, but he also had the unenviable task of competing for a job against three veterans (Grahams, Lewis and Lance Kendricks), none of whom were under any obligation to help the young tight end with his craft.
Instead, all three were an open book to Tonyan, who made the team as the No. 4 tight end on the back of a strong preseason in which he caught eight passes for 61 yards and two touchdowns.
It didn’t take long for the six-time Pro Bowler Graham to warm up to Tonyan, whose hard-working attitude in the classroom and pinpoint attention to detail quickly earned the veteran’s respect.
“Kid’s doing amazing,” Graham said. “What he’s done, even with his body putting on weight (and) what he’s done in the run game; obviously he’s going to help us out a lot this year. He’s got great hands and I love being around him, I love teaching him, and he soaks it all up.”
Graham’s resume and knowledge are valuable assets for any young tight end to tap into, but what stands out the most to Tonyan has been the 10th-year veteran’s professionalism.
Last year didn’t go according to plan for the Packers or Graham, who dealt with his share of injuries in his first season in Green Bay. Still, he played in all 16 regular-season games and became a trusted ally of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Tonyan has tried to follow in those footsteps to earning his quarterback’s trust. He made a good first impression last November when his first NFL catch went for a 54-yard touchdown against Seattle on Thursday Night Football.
A day later, Graham asked Tonyan if he wanted to “ride” with him to Chicago during the Packers’ mini-bye weekend. Tonyan answered faster than his mind could recall Graham’s love of aviation.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, we can carpool,’” said Tonyan, laughing. “He goes, ‘Yeah, plane leaves at 3 o’clock.’ I said, ‘Even better.’”
Lewis has been the Yin to Graham’s Yang when it comes to mentoring Tonyan. Known for years as one of the league’s preeminent blockers and in-line tight ends, the 6-foot-6, 257-pound Lewis has played a pivotal role in assisting Tonyan in learning the finer, grittier details of playing the position.
Tonyan spent a little time with Lewis in Los Angeles last offseason and learned how the former Pro Bowler doesn’t just win because of his size. It’s his meticulous preparation and training techniques that have kept Lewis in the league this long.
One of the secrets Lewis has divulged to Tonyan is how much he emphasizes both hand and eye placement when setting blocks. Whereas most tight ends will just look to put a hat on a hat, Lewis has the innate ability to tailor his hand placement to each individual defender he faces.
A year into his apprenticeship, Tonyan feels he’s matured both physically and mentally under the watch of Graham and Lewis. He believes the confidence the two have instilled in him have helped hasten his transition to both the position and the pros.
Case in point – how Tonyan was running with the second- and third-team offenses at this time last year. This summer? The 6-foot-5, 237-pound tight end has been rotating in with the first-team offense behind Graham and Lewis.
“I model a lot of my style of play after them,” Tonyan said. “I want to be like Marcedes in the run game and I want to be like Jimmy in the pass game.”
The Packers’ tight ends have plenty to play for this season. Graham, feeling the best he has in years, is out to prove he’s still “the biggest, fastest” receiving target on the field and is “as fired up as I’ve ever been to go and shut a lot of people up.”
There is hope the introduction of Matt LaFleur’s offense will bring the most out of the position, with Lewis potentially getting more opportunities to be an all-around tight end like he was in Jacksonville for a decade.
Tonyan hopes to be part of the solution, as well. Once a small-school player looking to latch onto a 90-man roster, he’s now seen as one of the Packers’ top offensive prospects.
“I wanted to prove to Marcedes and Jimmy that I was worthy of being on this team more than anyone,” Tonyan said. “I bring them up in every interview and I probably will until the day I stop playing football.
“I cannot thank those guys enough for who they are, how they involve me in things, and how they want me to be great.”