Robert Tonyan’s superb statistical line against the Falcons – six catches in six targets, for 98 yards and three touchdowns – might seem like it came out of nowhere. Actually though, it’s been in the works for several years. His performance on Monday was no one-game aberration. Big Bob, who has been a part of the Packers organization ever since 2017, signaled that he’s arrived as one of the league’s new breed of talented and acrobatic tight end receivers.
A product of the nation’s heartland, Tonyan was a star quarterback for his high school team in Illinois. Upon graduation, he enrolled at Indiana State, a member of the Missouri Valley, and located in Terre Haute, Indiana. Tonyan spent five years with the Sycamores, including being red-shirted in his first season. In his second year, he started three games at quarterback, though he completed only 35 out of 103 of his passes.
Tonyan switched over to tight end for his final three years of college. As a fifth-year senior, he had 56 catches for 699 yards, and a school-record ten touchdowns. Even so, the only honor he received as a collegian was being named honorable mention to the all-conference team as a junior. Not surprisingly, Big Bob went overlooked during the 2017 draft.
Following the 2017 draft, the Detroit Lions took two unusual steps: they signed him to a 3-year contract for $1.66 million – but then they released him before the season began. The Packers weren’t overeager either, finally adding him to the practice squad for the final four games of 2017.
In 2018, Tonyan managed to start one game for Green Bay; on the year he had four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. In 2019, he upped his production to ten catches, for 100 yards and another touchdown.
How much of a breakout star has Big Bob been this season? Through Week 4, His five receiving touchdowns are tied for league high with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans, and he has the most TDs among league tight ends; by comparison, Mark Andrews (BAL) has four, three others (including Jimmy Graham) have three, Travis Kelce (KC) has two, and big names like Eric Ebron (PIT), Zach Ertz (PHI), Jared Cook (NO), Greg Olsen (SEA), Jason Witten (LVR), and George Kittle (SF) have but one touchdown each.
Jermichael Finley had one season in which he caught more than five TD passes. Kittle’s best is also five TDs. In three years in Green Bay, Graham’s best was three. Aaron Rodgers has a potent new weapon at his disposal when he nears or reaches the red zone.
Speaking of Kittle, Tonyan trained with the Niners’ All-Pro tight end during the recent offseason. Though Tonyan has gotten off to a slower career start than Kittle (both are 26), he made up for a lot of lost time on Monday night.
The New Tight End Prototype
For the past decade, the league’s top tight ends were huge guys, most notably Rob Gronkowski (6’6” and 265#) and Jimmy Graham (6’7” and 260#). Now that tight ends are coveted more for their pass-catching artistry than their blocking ability, a new body type has emerged, with the ideal being about 6’5”, weighing around 240 pounds, and having very good speed and agility.
Tonyan fits that description perfectly. Broadcasters for the Monday night game mentioned that Green Bay wanted Big Bob to drop some weight for the 2020 season. I hadn’t heard that before, but Bob, who came out of college at 6’4” and 250 pounds, showed up at training camp this spring at 6’5” and 237 pounds. He looked fast, rangy, and nimble – and still plenty large and broad-shouldered – as he shredded the Falcon’s pass defense on Monday. And he did his damage on Monday night while getting only two-thirds of the offensive snaps.
Tonyan has great athleticism. It was apparent to the eye on Monday, and his metrics confirm it. Playerprofiler.com has him with these metric percentiles: agility 67th, speed score 75th, catch radius 78th, burst 82nd, and 40-yard dash 87th. Except for Kittle, whose lowest similar percentile is 90th, Tonyan might be the NFL’s next most athletic tight end.
As for intensity, fans saw on Monday that Big Bob is second to no one on the team.
Receiver Shortage Solved?
Over an 8-day period, Packers fans have witnessed breakout performances by receiver Allen Lazard and now Robert Tonyan. These two guys have what it takes to be above average NFL players at the least, and each has the potential for being a star. Yes, the team still lacks depth at the receiver positions, but when our injured receivers return, a starting threesome of Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, and Big Bob suddenly appears to be an area of team strength, not weakness. Adams (27), Tonyan (26), and Lazard (24) should have at least five prime years ahead of them.
Best of all, our rejuvenated quarterback has not shown any hesitancy in launching the ball their way – it doesn’t hurt that each has been wide open more often than not. The catch percentages for the two are phenomenal: for 2020, Tonyan has caught 13 of 14 passes, and Lazard is 13 of 17. Both players, unlike some of their teammates, have great hands. You’d have to go back to Jordy Nelson’s best years to find such high productivity.
By the way, on Monday night Aaron Rodgers was a perfect 19 for 19 when throwing to Tonyan, Jamaal Williams, and Aaron Jones.
What a difference eight days made. Like Tonyan, Lazard has been under development by the Green Bay coaching staff for some time – in his case beginning in 2018. The hard work by these players, and patience and belief by their coaches, are now paying off handsomely.
Speaking of payoffs, both Tonyan’s and Lazard’s one-year exclusive-rights free agent deals run out after this season. It’s going to cost the Pack a bundle of money to retain the two budding stars.