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Tyler Davis, Robert Tonyan maximized their potential with position switches

Former college quarterbacks have thrived as Packers tight ends

Tight ends Tyler Davis, Robert Tonyan
Tight ends Tyler Davis, Robert Tonyan

GREEN BAY – There isn't always time for patience in the NFL.

Organizations must win now, top prospects need to produce yesterday, and when it comes to roster construction, Rome is often expected to be built in no more than an hour.

While the Packers are no different when it comes to wanting to hasten the learning curve for their younger players, they aren't opposed to playing the long game with player development.

There may be no better example of that than Green Bay's tight end position, where a pair of former college quarterbacks, Robert Tonyan and Tyler Davis, have risen to prominence.

"Tight end's an interesting position because they have to understand the entire (offense), almost like they're a quarterback," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said.

"Whenever you take guys (and convert them to tight end from receiver or QB), there's a level of toughness to play physical on the line of scrimmage that takes time, but there's got to be a willingness to do it as well."

The Packers developed the blueprint with Tonyan, a former Indiana State quarterback whose eventual switch to receiver with the Sycamores laid the foundation for his NFL path.

After testing the waters at tight end as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions, Tonyan traveled the workout circuit for three months before landing a spot on the Packers' practice squad near the end of the 2017 season.

To Green Bay's credit, the scouts and coaching staff devoted the next two seasons to developing the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Tonyan at his new position.

With help from position coach Justin Outten, Marcedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham, Tonyan tied Paul Coffman's team record for single-season touchdown receptions (11) by a Packers tight end during a career-defining 2020 season.

Even today, Tonyan still looks for pointers on the nuances of the position from close friend George Kittle and other premier tight ends.

"It's just getting different players on your iPad and feeling people that play the tight end position," Tonyan said.

"When you make that change, you don't get to see a lot of tight end ball. I load up my iPad with numerous players across the league and watch how they do it, and try to add that stuff to my game and get more comfortable and get mental reps of playing this position."

Davis' path has been eerily similar to Tonyan's. Having played quarterback his entire life, Davis enrolled at UConn in 2014 with the expectation he would continue under center.

With Davis slated to serve as Bryant Shirreffs' backup in 2015, then-UConn head coach Bob Diaco asked his redshirt freshman quarterback if he'd be open to changing positions because the coaches felt Davis was too athletic to be holding a clipboard.

Davis made the move to tight end, recording 47 catches for 500 yards and seven touchdowns in three seasons with the Huskies. He finished his college career at Georgia Tech, catching 17 passes for 148 yards and a TD in 2019.

It was enough to get Davis drafted in the sixth round by Jacksonville in 2020. He played in eight games for the Jaguars without catching a pass.

Signed off of Indianapolis' practice squad last September, the 6-foot-4, 252-pound tight end went on to play in 14 games for the Packers after the team lost Tonyan to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Like Tonyan, Davis feels his history at quarterback helped ease his transition to a skill position. To this day, he continues to study the film of his teammate.

"We're pretty similar in the body type (for) this tight end position that me and Bobby play," Davis said. "I've got tons of clips of Bobby on my iPad that I watch every day. Just trying to emulate him and trying to be exactly like him is a big deal."

Transitioning players to new positions has become old hat for the Packers and their scouting department. In fact, another former Georgia Tech tight end, Jack Coco, is competing for Green Bay's long snapper job after trying out for special-teams coaches Rich Bisaccia and Byron Storer earlier this spring.

A year ago, the Packers also carried former Baltimore Ravens defensive end Bronson Kaufusi on their practice squad while he transitioned into a tight end.

It goes beyond just tight end, too. Sam Shields developed into a Pro Bowl cornerback with the Packers after originally playing receiver for three seasons at the University of Miami (Fla.).

The Packers currently have two cornerbacks, Rico Gafford and Kabion Ento, with receiver backgrounds – Ento at the University of Colorado and Gafford for three seasons with the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders.

Tonyan remains grateful for the patience the Packers showed with him. His growth and the team's success played heavily into his decision to re-sign with Green Bay this past offseason.

"I've worked so hard to be from a nobody, practice-squad guy, undrafted free agent, I think I would be letting some of these guys down just leaving here and vice-versa – people wanting me back," Tonyan said. "Right now, my heart's here. I'm going to take it day by day with my knee and enjoy every day with these guys in this locker room and just win a Super Bowl."

Tonyan and Davis have become good friends over the past 11 months. Like Lewis and Graham did for him, Tonyan has tried to be an open book for Davis at all times.

The only contention comes up when it's asked who throws the better ball? Tonyan answers immediately, if not sooner.

"Me," Tonyan said. "Anyone who doesn't say themselves…(you've) gotta have that confidence."

After completing 3-of-4 passes for 58 yards at UConn, Davis playfully begs to disagree with his teammate.

"I do. I do," Davis said. "For real, though, we always talk about that type of stuff. Just having the background in playing quarterback, me and him are kind of like-minded the way that we see things and spacing and all that deal. It's cool to be with somebody like him."

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