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Tight ends developing into high-impact group for Packers

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GREEN BAY – It wasn’t just the stats, even though a collective nine catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns jumps off the sheet.

The impact the Packers’ tight ends had on Thursday night’s 51-34 preseason victory over the Steelers was felt from start to finish, and they revealed in game action just how deep and talented they are as a unit.

Led by veterans Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks, with Robert Tonyan currently out front amongst the undrafted hopefuls that also include Emanuel Byrd, Kevin Rader and Ryan Smith, Green Bay’s tight ends are establishing themselves as reliable, productive players heading for a potentially big 2018.

There isn’t enough room for all of them on the roster, and how many the Packers will keep remains to be seen with two preseason games to go. But Head Coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t be happier with what he’s seen to this point at a position he’s always valued highly in his offensive system.

“It’s a bigger group, a more experienced group,” McCarthy said on Friday in naming the tight ends the standout unit on offense from the Pittsburgh game. “It’s clearly the most depth we’ve ever had. The three veterans are exactly what you’re looking for.”

Graham’s lone catch of the preseason thus far was vintage Graham – reaching high in the end zone to snare an Aaron Rodgers pass only a 6-foot-7 target could. A key sign of things to come, it came not only in the red zone, but also on third down.

McCarthy called Graham a “great fit” while saying Lewis “makes a difference” with his blocking, not just on the front side but also on the back side, where he has cleared some cutback lanes the running backs haven’t yet found.

Lewis also hauled in a 23-yard pass over the middle from Brett Hundley against the Steelers, one play before Kendricks caught a 15-yarder to keep the offense rolling toward a score. Kendricks later started a drive with a 13-yard grab and is showing in his second season in Green Bay he’s “very comfortable in the offense,” according to McCarthy.

The young players have had their moments, too, with Tonyan’s progress in particular showing up against Pittsburgh. He had three catches for 20 yards, the first a 14-yarder over the middle on second-and-9. He then finished that drive with an impressive, contested grab on a fade from DeShone Kizer for a 1-yard TD. It came two snaps after he drew a pass interference flag on the other side of the field on a similar throw.

A converted receiver who spent the final month of 2017 on the Packers’ practice squad, Tonyan simply has soaked up as much tutelage as possible from position coach Brian Angelichio and the three veterans ahead of him in making a legitimate push for a roster spot.

“We’ve got a good tight end room, so it’s easy to progress and get better because everyone’s positive,” said Tonyan, an Indiana State product. “The vets are always willing to give advice and teach and coach.

“I still don’t think I’m where I need to be, which is good and bad at the same time. It means I have a lot of potential and a high ceiling to get to, but I have to keep working and keep getting better every day. When you’re put in position to make plays, you’ve got to make them … just (to) make it hard on them to try to get rid of me.”

McCarthy praised Tonyan’s development as a “second-level player,” referencing his ability to get downfield. Byrd did that as well on Thursday with a 22-yard reception on third-and-14. Earlier in the week at practice, Rader made a highlight-reel grab on a deep ball down the sideline, diving to haul in the pass one-handed with a linebacker draped all over him in coverage.

“All four of those young guys have done things to really get excited about,” McCarthy said.

All told in the Pittsburgh game, seven of the tight ends’ nine receptions produced a first down or a touchdown. It doesn’t get much more high-impact than that.

“I really like them as a group,” McCarthy said. “I thought that was an excellent night.”

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