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Robert Tonyan continues to 'shock the world' during breakout season

Pro Bowl or no Pro Bowl, third-year tight end has been a big part of Packers’ offensive success

TE Robert Tonyan
TE Robert Tonyan

GREEN BAY – The Packers have invested draft picks, signed free agents and even orchestrated a couple position changes in their quest to address a tight end position that's been in flux since Jermichael Finley's career-ending neck injury in 2013.

As luck would have it, maybe all it took was finding an overlooked Indiana State receiver who hails from just south of the Wisconsin border.

Robert Tonyan has been one of the NFL's biggest overnight success stories this season, albeit three years in the making.

With two games left in the regular season, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound tight end is tied with All-Pro Travis Kelce for the most touchdown receptions (10) amongst his position group. In the franchise record book, he trails only Paul Coffman's 11 from 1983.

In last Saturday's 24-16 win over Carolina, the McHenry, Ill., native became the first tight end in the league to catch a TD pass in five consecutive games since Julian Thomas in 2014. He's the only tight end in franchise history to accomplish that, as well.

Tonyan has done it all while catching 49 of his 55 targets without a drop this season. He's the only tight end with at least 50 targets to accomplish that, according to Pro Football Focus.

While it didn't add up to a Pro Bowl selection – don’t even get his teammates started on that one – Tonyan has made a name for himself this season as a savvy route-runner with strong hands and a high football IQ.

"It's been huge for him, obviously for his confidence, his career where it's headed, the whole scope of that, and for this team, too," receiver Davante Adams said. "I think one of the things we've lacked in the past is a super-reliable tight end like how he is. He has some of the best hands I've been around. His connection with '12' has continued to grow and everything is just getting better as he's been around."

Tonyan broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017 with the Detroit Lions, but was cut at the end of training camp. Four months later, he resurfaced on the Packers' practice squad before making the 53-man roster the following summer.

The past two years served as a graduate program in what it means to play tight end at the game's highest level. Tonyan's professors? Marcedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham, two of the best blocking and pass-catching tight ends of their generation, respectively.

Matt LaFleur's hiring as head coach brought tight ends coach Justin Outten into the mix in 2019, and after showing glimpses of greatness a year ago before a core-muscle injury interrupted his season, Tonyan has put it all together in 2020.

It's not just the touchdowns or his 551 yards, either. Tonyan has developed into an all-around tight end. In Green Bay's Week 14 win over Detroit, he chip-blocked Romeo Okwara into two other Lions pass-rushers to leave Aaron Rodgers unpressured. It bought his quarterback extra time to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling for 21 yards on third-and-14.

"There's not many times you can look at four offensive linemen next to each other huddled up around three bodies on the ground," said Outten last week. "It was a great hit. He did his job on that play and it was definitely cool to see."

From a pure pass-catching standpoint, Tonyan has been a revelation for LaFleur's offense that relies on packages with two tight ends. He's athletic enough to win as a move tight end, with his catch-and-runs to the flat off play-action being a constant headache for defenses.

Tonyan also has been proficient as an in-line tight end and showcased a knack for finding holes in the secondary, leading to a couple of his TD grabs that have gone largely uncontested.

But it's not by accident.

"He's a savvy route-runner for being his size and real soft hands," Outten said. "He's got a feel for the second and third level and he knows how to manipulate third-level defenders. There's others where he just continues with his route and it is a scramble situation, just continues to find a void in the defense. That's the intelligence part of it and the feel part of it.

"If you've got that at this level, on top of all the other things you have with your talent, then you're gonna find the ball and the ball's gonna find you."

Tonyan isn't the most boisterous guy in the locker room. After all, it did take him nearly three years to politely mention how the media had been mispronouncing his last name since he'd gotten to Green Bay.

When asked last month why he finally decided to say something now, Tonyan laughed and said: "I had to earn my stripes first. … Kinda just made a name for myself, how about that?"

Maybe Tonyan's low-key demeanor contributed to getting overlooked for a Pro Bowl nod. Numerous teammates, including Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard, took to Twitter after the Pro Bowl team was announced to stump for Tonyan.

In the end, what really matters is what Tonyan brings to a Packers team with Super Bowl aspirations. It'll take points to get there and Tonyan has been the right tight end for that job.

"Being in a position where he comes in, not even knowing where or how much he'll be used and then to shock the world, to go out and catch 10 touchdowns like that, it says a lot about who he is," Adams said.

"It's just like I told Jai (Jaire Alexander), you typically get (the Pro Bowl bid) the year after. I told him, follow up with another performance like that and he'll be an All-Pro."