Robert Tonyan becomes productive tight end Packers have sought all along

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Throw the ball to Robert Tonyan and there's a good chance -- an 88.5% chance to be exact -- he's going to catch it. In that regard, the Green Bay Packers have the most effective tight end in the NFL.

After years of searching -- and money wasted and draft picks spent -- the Packers finally have a dynamic weapon at the position.

Tonyan's catch percentage leads all NFL tight ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and it's not even that close. He's been targeted 52 times, and he's caught 46 of them. There's only one other tight end who has a catch rate better than 76%, and that's the Indianapolis Colts' Mo-Alie Cox at 80%, but he's only been targeted 35 times.

Tonyan is tied for the league touchdown lead among tight ends with nine, matching Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce. He ranks among the NFL's top-10 tight ends in catches (ninth), yards (sixth with 533), yards per catch (ninth at 11.6) and yards per target (tied for first at 10.3).

All that for $750,000 -- a bargain-basement price in the NFL.

The Packers paid Jimmy Graham more than $22 million for two years of a three-year, $30 million deal that still counts $3.67 million in dead money on their salary cap after they cut him before this season. Graham caught five touchdowns and 93 passes in two seasons for the Packers.

They gave Martellus Bennett more than $7 million for playing just seven games of a three-year, $21 million deal that forced them to count more than $7 million in dead money on their 2017 and 2018 caps combined. Bennett caught no touchdowns and 24 passes before the Packers released him in midseason in 2017.

They've used third-round picks on tight ends in each of the past two drafts: Jace Sternberger in 2019 and Josiah Deguara this season. Deguara blew out his knee early this season, and Sternberger has been behind Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis when healthy.

None flourished like Tonyan, who first signed with the Packers to their practice squad on Dec. 5, 2017 after he was released by the Detroit Lions three months earlier.

In Sunday's win over those same Lions, Tonyan became the first tight end in Packers history with touchdown catches in four straight games. His nine on the season are the most by a Packers tight end since Bubba Franks in 2001.

When the Packers hired coach Matt LaFleur in 2019, they had several players tailor-made for his offensive system. Coaches pointed to receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones as examples. No one mentioned Tonyan, even though it was a scheme that highlighted tight ends such as Tonyan's offseason workout partner and former roommate, George Kittle, who has flourished in the same system with the San Francisco 49ers.

Both Tonyan's touchdown against the Lions and his third-down catch to seal the game in the final minutes were vintage LaFleur plays -- play-action rollouts with a late release by the tight end.

"I think that's a credit to him and the work he's put in," LaFleur said this week. "I think [tight ends coach] Justin Outten does an unbelievable job with that whole room and really helps develop our players. ... Really proud of the effort that Bobby has done and he's been a big spark for us, not only in the pass game, but he's consistently getting better in the running game as well."

There have been signs of a Tonyan breakout in the past -- a 54-yard touchdown catch against the Seahawks in 2018 and a leaping catch along the sideline against the Cowboys last season. But whether it was a lack of opportunity (2018) or an injury (a core muscle injury on that play in Dallas), it didn't come together until now for the quarterback-turned-receiver at Indiana State -- turned tight end in the NFL.

"He's such an intelligent player, and I love playing with smart players," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's a guy that you really feel comfortable with, doing things in the scheme and on the fringe of the scheme with him because he's such a bright, bright player.

"I think the reason for the high touchdown stats -- obviously we've had a lot of touchdowns this year -- but he's been really efficient in the red zone because he's such a good route runner. And then schematically, look, the touchdown that he had [against the Lions], I didn't do a whole lot. I dropped back, I looked at [Adams], I looked at Marquez [Valdes-Scantling] and Bobby's wide open. That's good scheme. I remember that play when [offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett] and I talked about it Thursday night and I saw the play in my mind as he's talking about it, and I said, 'That's going to be a touchdown ... to Bobby.'"

Tonyan will be in line for a raise this offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent and the Packers have to decide which tender to use on him. Those are projected at $4.873 million for the first-round tender and $3.422 million for the second-round tender, according to OverTheCap.com. The other option is the original-round tender for $2.24 million, but then if another team signed him to an offer that the Packers don't match, they would get no compensation because Tonyan was originally an undrafted free agent.

If Tonyan was a relative unknown before this season, he's well-known now. And people finally know how to pronounce his name correctly. It's not TAHN-yin as it's been said since he came to Green Bay and even before that. He wasn't even listed under the pronunciation guide in the 2020 Packers media guide. But midway through the season he revealed that it's actually pronounced TUN-yin, rhyming with the snack Funyuns.

"I had to earn my stripes first before I started bossing people around and telling people what to do," Tonyan said when asked why he let people say his name wrong for so long. "So kinda just made a name for myself. How about that?"