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Robert Tonyan appreciates personal friendships amidst professional uncertainty

Packers tight end provides window into the human side of the business

TEs Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan and WR Allen Lazard
TEs Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan and WR Allen Lazard

GREEN BAY – Packers tight end Robert Tonyan could chat forever about two players he's closest with on the team – Allen Lazard and Marcedes Lewis.

He appreciates them beyond measure.

With Lazard, it's a friendship (and locker neighbor-ship) that grew from both undrafted players fighting for the same roster spot during training camp in 2019. Tonyan won it, Lazard was initially relegated to the practice squad before getting activated, and both found their way to being significant contributors in Green Bay the past four seasons.

"When you have that bond with someone you know everything about them and what they're thinking and vice versa, so when you go out on the field, it's just so comfortable," Tonyan said about Lazard after the Packers' 2022 season wrapped up. "You're at ease and you know what they're bringing to the table and how they prepare."

With Lewis, Tonyan couldn't have asked for a better mentor at tight end to show him everything from the multi-tasking required to succeed on the field to the approach demanded of a pro off it. They've now been together for five years, the longest the 17-year veteran Lewis has spent as teammates with any other tight end during his career in Jacksonville or Green Bay.

"That's like five years of coming in here every day, watching his process, talking about it, sitting on the plane together, talking," Tonyan said. "Just those real conversations."

Those end-of-season comments come with the backdrop of a high degree of uncertainty about Tonyan and his closest mates heading into 2023.

Tonyan is a pending free agent. He became one last year, too, but coming off the torn ACL that ended his 2021 season in late October and facing the traditionally long rehab, he accepted a one-year offer from the Packers to come back and got himself healthy in time for Week 1 this past season.

At the same time a year ago, Lewis passed on retirement and decided to play out the second year of the two-year contract he signed with Green Bay in 2021. And Lazard, as a restricted free agent, returned on the tender offer the Packers extended that, in effect, kept him off the market.

All the circumstances are vastly different this year. Both Tonyan and Lazard are headed for unrestricted free agency, while Lewis may or may not want to continue playing. In all three cases, the Packers may or may not be interested in re-signing them, and how much Aaron Rodgers' future factors into all of it is anyone's guess.

It's a lot to process, and while Tonyan didn't immediately address his situation – "That's what we've got agents for, I guess," he said – just hearing him talk about the teammates he's closest with is a reminder … that behind all the hard-core business dealings of star athletes are real-life humans with personal emotions and connections, who inevitably reach career crossroads where they must sacrifice some level of control for wealth and opportunity.

"We'd just sit at this locker and talk for hours, driving to and from practice together every day, hanging out basically every day as well," Tonyan said of Lazard. "So yeah, he truly means the world to me up here."

And on Lewis: "Just knowing he's going to have my back for life and vice versa, that relationship isn't going to stop beyond these walls."

In that same vein, Tonyan also took a moment to express his gratitude for younger teammate and position-mate Josiah Deguara, a third-round draft pick in 2020 who will be playing out the final year of his rookie deal in 2023.

Deguara battled through his ACL rehab a year before Tonyan did and was a resource and sounding board through the arduous process. Tonyan also referred to Deguara as his "sanity" in dealing with the ups and downs, because while Tonyan was proud he played in every game after getting his 2021 season cut short and caught 53 passes, he scored just two touchdowns compared to his 11 in 2020 and had four different games this season in which he recorded only one reception.

Deguara was certainly looking for more than the 13 catches for 114 yards he posted this past season, too, but supporting his friend and more accomplished fellow tight end took priority.

"He's honestly just made me a better man this year," Tonyan said of Deguara. "He just knows me and shows so much love. Josiah, he radiates that, and he's so honest.

"How I view myself and how I wanted to help this team, sometimes it didn't match up with my goals and aspirations, and he was more mad for me than he was for him. That just shows the type of selfless people that are in this locker room."

The only certainties in the NFL are no team stays the same from one year to the next, and some change more than others.

With the end of the season so fresh, Tonyan didn't want to speculate one way or another about what's next. "I really have no idea," was his honest thought.

But he has a very good idea of what he's been a part of in Green Bay to this point, and whatever happens with him and his inner circle, that has shaped who he's become.

"I've got a lot of love for basically everyone in this locker room," he said, "but there's just certain people that are going to be there forever."

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