GREEN BAY – Robert Tonyan looks around the meeting room and clearly sees he’s the outlier among a collection of Packers tight ends who have combined for 346 starts and more than 27 NFL seasons.
Marcedes Lewis is a former first-round pick, Jimmy Graham has been selected to five Pro Bowls and Lance Kendricks was a consensus All-American during his playing days at the University of Wisconsin.
And then there’s Tonyan, a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-tight end who became the first Indiana State alumnus on an opening NFL 53-man roster since 2000. He made the team when Green Bay opted to keep a fourth tight end coming out of training camp.
The 24-year-old tight end earned his place the hard way after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Detroit last year. A casualty of the Lions’ final round of cuts, Tonyan crisscrossed the county on an endless series of visits before finally signing onto Green Bay’s practice squad last December.
Despite his humble NFL beginnings, Tonyan fits into the Packers’ tight-ends room perfectly. After spending the summer working closely with Graham, Kendricks and Lewis, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound tight end has become a little brother of sorts to the Packers’ three veterans.
“What those three guys do for me is not normal,” Tonyan said. “When you go somewhere as a young guy and you have three highly named vets like that – there’s Lance who’s eight years in, Jimmy who’s nine years, and Marcedes who’s 13, and then a first-year position, tight-end guy – they don’t do that.
“It just means the world to me that anytime I need it or even if I don’t ask questions, they pull me aside and make sure I know what’s going on.”
So it should come as no surprise the Packers’ veteran tight ends were among the first wave of teammates to congratulate Tonyan on his first NFL catch, a 54-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers in the first quarter of last Thursday night’s game against Seattle.
Lined up on the outside hip of Graham, Tonyan gained a step off the line of scrimmage from Seahawks’ safety Bradley McDougald before taking his go route to the left sideline. With Rodgers initially scrambling right, Tonyan maintained his separation and extended the play to give his quarterback an end-zone target.
As only Rodgers can do, the two-time MVP put the ball where only Tonyan could catch it to create a lasting memory for the former undrafted free agent and give Green Bay a 14-3 lead at the time. Once the two returned to the sidelines, Rodgers quickly pulled Tonyan aside and “said a bunch of encouraging words.”
“What he does best is get out of the pocket and make those amazing throws,” Tonyan said. “You just have to be ready for the ball, whether you’re on the back side or far, short or a little window. You’ve got to always be ready for the ball when you’re on the field with him.”
After the game, Tonyan’s phone lit up with text messages from a bevy of friends, family and former teammates. He did his best over the weekend to reply to all of them.
The reality of being the young guy at a stacked position is snaps aren’t plentiful during the regular season. Prior to Thursday, Tonyan had seen only a handful of reps in Green Bay’s goal-line package, where all four tight ends are on the field together.
While his catch came on one of only three offensive snaps Tonyan played against the Seahawks, capitalizing on those types of opportunities are what prove to Head Coach Mike McCarthy that a first-year player is ready to contribute on a larger scale.
Although Graham exited Thursday’s game before halftime with a thumb injury, McCarthy said Monday the two-time All-Pro tight end is planning to play through it. Regardless of who is or isn’t available, Tonyan is keeping the same ready mindset in preparation for whenever his next opportunity arrives.
Just like he did last Thursday when the lights were shining brightest on the road.
“I definitely feel like I’m ready,” Tonyan said. “I’m hoping the best for Jimmy. Hopefully, it’s something he can play through. That’s not how I want to deserve playing time or how I want to get playing time. But that is football. I have three other guys in the room who are very uplifting and who want me to go out there and be successful and make sure I’m ready for the game.”