GREEN BAY – Robert Tonyan no longer is the new kid in the Packers’ tight ends room.
A year ago at this time, the former Indiana State receiver was engrossed in learning a new position with a new team in hope of fulfilling his lifelong dream of making an NFL roster.
Tonyan did that and then some. He not only earned a place on Green Bay’s initial 53 coming out of training camp, but also went on to play in all 16 games in 2018.
While a yearlong special-teams contributor, Tonyan made a memorable first impression on offense when his first NFL catch went for a 54-yard touchdown against Seattle on Nov. 15.
It was one of only 67 offensive snaps Tonyan played during his first full year in Green Bay, but it offered a glimpse of the 6-foot-5, 237-pound tight end’s potential. This spring, he carried that momentum through to the Packers’ offseason program.
“The video was minimal, but you got to see flashes of some things that got you excited,” said first-year tight ends coach Justin Outten. “And then working with him this offseason, you could see those flashes coming out.”
Both Graham and Lewis have had a profound impact on Tonyan’s development. The two veterans, who have played a combined 22 NFL seasons, have been gracious in imparting advice and wisdom whenever Tonyan has a question.
A renewed focus on lower-body strength and flexibility helped Tonyan grow comfortable as an in-line tight end and blocker, but it’s his time spent with Lewis and Graham he credits to his growth over the past 12 months.
“All these seasoned veterans and then me, I got so much growth mentally and physically from that,” Tonyan said. “Just because of how they talked to me every day and how they speak, and how they go out and handle their business. It’s easy to follow them and do the right thing.”
If his apprenticeship under Graham and Lewis wasn’t enough, Tonyan spent the early part of his offseason training in Nashville with San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2018 after amassing 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns.
Clients of NFL agent Jack Bechta, Tonyan and Kittle trained together in Frisco, Texas, prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. Within a week, the other athletes who were training began referring to the two as brothers because of their similar builds and personalities.
Take a look at photos of Packers TE Robert Tonyan from the 2018 season.
While Kittle found instant success as a fifth-round pick with the 49ers, Tonyan had to take a longer road to the NFL. He split time between practice squads in Detroit and Green Bay during his rookie season before proving his worth last year.
When it comes to learning the finer details of the position, Kittle has been an invaluable resource for Tonyan to bounce ideas off of. Furthermore, Kittle’s low-key approach to his newfound success has been an additional source of motivation for Tonyan.
“It’s just nice because it gives me hope I can do it,” Tonyan said. “Going through the training that he does and competing with him every day whether it’s in the weight room or on the field, he puts positive thoughts in my head like you can do this.”
It was through that connection Tonyan was presented with the opportunity to train with 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, a close friend and longtime teammate of Kittle’s going back to their time together at Iowa.
Beathard has spent two NFL seasons learning the offensive system both San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan and new Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur employ, which provided Tonyan with some unique insight before he even reported back to Green Bay for the start of April’s offseason program.
“I got to hear little bit of terminology in this offense and what to look for coming here,” Tonyan said. “So I could get a little ahead and talk about it a little bit.”
There is a fierce battle steeping at the tight end position this summer. Along with the returning veterans, the Packers drafted Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger in the third round and claimed Pharoah McKever off waivers from Jacksonville earlier this month.
Feeling physically stronger and more comfortable thanks to the veteran support around him, Tonyan is eager to compete for a spot once again.
“It’s so much different coming in and not having to relearn a position, just starting off where I came from last year,” Tonyan said. “Now I’m just working at weaknesses this year instead of putting together a whole position.”