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Let’s Not Blow the Big Restricted Free Agent Decision

Though no one else seems to be, I’m a Packer fan who’s worried.

In fact, I’m very worried about the NFL’s restricted free agency provisions. In the vast majority of cases, players due to become restricted free agents are retained by their current teams. My fear is that Robert Tonyan might well prove to be the exception in 2021.

Tonyan is not your typical RFA. Though he’s been with the Packers since 2017, he’s only been allowed to show his stuff to any extent for one year. In 2020, Tonyan’s stats were 52 catches for 586 yards, 11 touchdowns, and a fine 11.6 yards per catch average. While the 11 TDs has drawn the most attention, I’m more impressed by his catch ratio – he was only targeted 59 times last season, so his catch rate was an incredible 89.6% (counting playoffs).

This would have led the league, but for teammate Jamaal Williams whose percentage was 89.7. The other NFL tight ends were far hehind Big Bob in this category: the closest to him were the Colts’ Mo Alie-Cox (81.4) and the Bucs’ Cameron Brate (79.2). A bunch of the league’s biggest tight end names fared less well, including George Kittle, 76.2; Travis Kelce, 73.5; Jimmy Graham, 66.7; Jared Cook (61.7), Rob Gronkowski (58.4), and Evan Engram (57.8).

I mention the Giants’ Engram because he was named a Pro Bowler, ahead of Tonyan, which a few months ago caused Packer fans considerable consternation. The fans were right. The obvious reason that Tonyan was overlooked was that he was under-utilized. Though healthy all year, he was thrown to only 59 times in the regular season By comparison, Kelce and Darrin Waller (both AFC Pro Bowlers) were thrown to 145 times, which tied them for sixth in the league among all receivers. Engram was thrown to 109 times, nearly double that of Tonyan.

Now, there will be those who will say that Tonyan, after just one good year, isn’t a proven top tight end. I’m not one of them. Tonyan has all the tools: size, speed (4.58 dash time), great hands, big catch radius, big play ability, great competitiveness, hands of glue. He’s also a dedicated off-season workout guy, and he’s becoming a fine blocker. For what it’s worth, I have Kelce and Kittle in my top tier at the position, followed by Tonyan and maybe three others in the second tier.

TE Robert Tonyan celebrates

Oct 5, 2020; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan (85) celebrates his third touchdown with wide receiver Malik Taylor (86) and wide receiver Darrius Shepherd (82) against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, October 5, 2020, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. William Glasheen-USA TODAY NETWORK

RFA Situation

The Packers surely know what they have in the 26-year-old, who has been largely overlooked since he came out of Indiana State. Or do they? We’ll find out in just a few days – that’s when Brian Gutekunst needs to designate him as a first-round tender or a second-round tender. The first choice would mean he’d be paid $4.766M in 2021, while the second choice would cost the team $3.384M.

Almost every commentator out there seems to think Gutey (and Russ Ball) will opt for the second-round tender. If they do, I think – I fear – the Packers will lose Big Bob.

Here’s the problem. While Green Bay as I write this sits at just over $1 million below the cap (according to spotrac.com) there are 25 teams with more available money than Green Bay. The four teams that have the most cap money available are the Jags, Jets, Pats, and Colts, who are $70, $69, $65, and $48 million under the cap. Should any of them, or any other team (eight more are over $30M under the cap), submit a bid for Tonyan, it would be implausible for the Packers to match it.

There’s arguably a saving grace to the RFA provisions: compensation. The reason they are named first- and second-round tenders is that, depending on how the Packers designate their tender, if another team’s offer isn’t matched by Green Bay, that team must turn over their upcoming first- or second-round draft choice to the Packers. I greatly doubt that another team would be willing to give up their first-round choice in exchange for Tonyan. However, I do think one of more teams would be willing to give up its second-round pick in order to acquire a player with Tonyan’s talent, productivity, and prospects to become even better.

Likely Suitors

Looking at just the four teams who have the most available cap space, here’s what thedraftnetwork.com says are their primary and secondary positional needs: the Jags and Pats are rated as having a primary need for a tight end, while the Jets and Colts are said to have a secondary TE need. As for where these four teams are lined up for the draft, the Jags have the top pick in the upcoming draft (and also the 25th overall pick); the Jets are right behind them at number two (and they also have the 23rd pick). The Patriots are fifteenth in line; and the Colts are 21st. I therefore doubt that any of the four teams would compete for Tonyan if the Packers give him the first-round tender designation.

If Gutekunst chooses the second-round designation, however, I fear that he’ll place our team at great risk of losing Big Bob.

According to ourlads.com, the current depth charts of these four teams indicate the starting tight ends as James O’Shaughnessy (Jags), Christopher Herndon (Jets), Ryan Izzo (Pats), and Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox (Colts). Unless I’m mistaken, these are far from being blue chippers. Yeah, the four teams who are most under the cap could all benefit from a big upgrade at tight end.


For once, I hope I’m mistaken – either about how the RFA provisions work, or in thinking that some other team will value Tonyan as highly as I do. The Packers have a tough choice coming up. If they exercise the first-round tender, it will cost them about 4.8 million (all against the salary cap), but given the compensation aspect, it is highly unlikely that any other team will pursue him. However, if Green Bay opts for the second-round tender, the cost will be about $3.8 million. I hope the Packers can scrape up the extra million to all but assure that Tonyan remains in Green Bay – even if it’s only for the upcoming season.

Additionally, should Tonyan be retained, it will be criminal if he isn’t thrown to at least 80, and preferably 100, times during the next regular season. It took Green Bay a long time to fully utilize Davante Adams, we never took full advantage of Jordy Nelson, and we under-utilized Aaron Jones for four years. Let’s not repeat those mistakes with this gifted tight end.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Howard March 14, 2021

    Aaron Jones signs with Packers at 4 years 48 million. Something else is going to have to break on how the Packers are getting this below the cap. There must be other extensions or restructure news coming soon.
    Sorry Rob, good article I will get back on the Tonyan situation later.

    1. Mick March 14, 2021

      I agree Howard, something sizable remains in the balance. It will be interesting to see what it is. Rodgers restructure, maybe? Adams? Z. Smith/? or something not so obvious?

  2. Mick March 14, 2021

    Good work Rob! I’ve been concerned about Tonyans’ future myself. Maybe the lack of targets in the passing game is a result of LaFleur utilizing him mainly as a blocker in that scheme, and receiving being of 2nd importance. Another reason, Rodgers being too dependent on Adams, especially when they are struggling on offense. Tonyan should be given every chance possible to remain in GB. He’s young, dependable, sure-handed and should be trusted more. If he leaves, you have Dafney, Deguara, and Sternberger on the roster, and none of them are experienced. I’ve also heard that they are not happy with Sternbergers’ development. If they target a TE again early in the draft——— it will prove they don’t know what they’re doing.

    1. Mick March 14, 2021

      A. Jones; 4 years, 48 mil and a 13 mil signing bonus! WOW! Who the hell saw that one coming? There must be bigger money coming from the networks in the year(s) ahead for this one to make sense. I’m happy for Jones.

    2. Howard March 14, 2021

      Mick, I really think Sternberger is one more concussion away from retirement. In both of Sternberger’s previous concussions he had to sit for longer than the one week many sit. The last concussion looked like it put Sternberger out before he hit the turf.

      1. Mick March 15, 2021

        Good point, I wasn’t sure what the main reason was for Sternberger not playing much. I knew about the concussions, but I was trying to figure out why he wasn’t utilized more when cleared.

  3. PF4L March 14, 2021

    This is a unique off season for the Packers (and some other teams).
    Most off seasons find teams looking for ways to improve their teams.
    This off season, teams like the Packers are mainly in a mad scramble to keep what they have, intact.
    Here’s what concerns me….we are deep at edge rushers, at the moment we are deep at rb,
    We are deep at young tight ends.
    But we have one legit corner with less than desirable depth.
    We are losing starters and depth on the O line which concerns me greatly.
    We still have questions at ILB with a degree of hope from a couple of young players.
    Safety is covered but depth is a bit week.
    Receivers….well, they are not exactly prioritized in Green Bay, but we have 1 good one.
    It is hard (for anyone) to improve a team under these salary cap conditions.
    You only have two ways, free agency (if you have the cash)
    The draft, and then hope some players can give you instant payback like Jenkins and Alexander did.
    Now maybe…..and i say maybe……
    The defense can show improvement in year 1 and 2 under a new Coordinator.
    The way it did after Dom Capers replaced Bob Sanders back in 2009, that is a big ask.
    But that might be the best way to show team improvement this season.

    1. Mick March 15, 2021

      Fixing the defense is the most important need . SF and TB (twice) exposed the weaknesses on the team. Solidify the DL next to Clark, obtain a quality CB opposite Alexander, and upgrade the ILB position. Two out of those 3 positions have been weak for as long as I remember. Sure, we could use another dependable WR to team up with Adams. For as long as I can remember, the theory on this team has always been, offense 1st, everything else— we’ll get by. They have put most of the burden of winning games on the QB and the offense. So, at the end of this past 2020 season, GB had the highest scoring offense in the league, and still they couldn’t go to the next level. Even though I’d like to see the Pack obtain another threat at WR, this offense is good enough to win it all. I’m with PF4L on this one; maybe Barry recognizes the weaknesses here, and fixes it. It’s mandatory,,,,,, IMO.

  4. PF4L March 14, 2021

    Nice write up Rob.
    I fully agree on Tonyan. His catch ratio is off the charts!!
    It’s nice to see someone else notice that.
    I would say McCarthy under utilized Aaron Jones, without a doubt.
    But i think LeFleur utilized him just fine, to the tune of 30 TD’s in two seasons.
    He schemed the offense, and put Jones in position along with Rodgers….to be successful.
    Part of that was out of necessity, due to the low number of proven receivers.
    But credit LaFleur for using Jones, and in 2020 Tonyan, to pick up some of the slack in offensive scoring.
    The results were fantastic imo.
    My view on Tonyan hasn’t changed, you tag him a first rounder tender, and you find a way to pay him!
    Because he earned it.

    1. PF4L March 14, 2021

      The paradigm has to change in Green Bay from years past.
      Lets pay….the players who’ve earned it.

  5. Howard March 14, 2021

    Rob, again good article. I have to say I have voiced this potential problem with Tonyan in part 1 of this series. The safest thing to do with Tonyan is try to get an extension with him. Without the extension the Packers need to put in the first round tender. Everyone just needs to remember that the first round tender does not mean a team can’t sign Tonyan for more than the Packers have available.
    You make a good point about the Jags and Jets needing a TE. A first round tender should make teams hesitate in trying to sign Tonyan. A first round tender may not stop the Jags and Jets from making an offer to Tonyan. There are three teams with 2 first round picks. Two of those teams are the jags and Jets. The Jags have the first pick of round one and the 25th pick. I believe the Jets have the 2nd pick in round one and the 23rd pick. If the Jags or the Jets wanted a TE bad enough and thought Tonyan was the best TE free agent restricted or unrestricted then one of those teams may make an offer with their later first round picks. I’m not sure how The TE market looks in the 2021 draft as we are waiting on Paul ;-) . If the 2021 draft does not have quality TEs available later in the first round and the Jags or Jets really want one then Tonyan may be their choice. After all the Jags and Jets have another pick right after at picks 33 and 34.
    I think Rodgers and Tonyan have a strong connection. Rodgers and Tonyan just appear to see the field the same. That is not to say Rodgers has not got after Tonyan in games, but Tonyan appears to correct well to QB#1.The Packers will work something out with Tonyan, and I could see Rodgers being the player to help financially in getting a deal done.

    1. Adam March 16, 2021

      Howard, no one is signing Tonyan if he gets a 1st round tender, and if they do, the Packers should happily accept it.

      1. PF4L March 16, 2021


  6. Adam March 16, 2021

    The 2nd round tender is the right choice.

    I highly doubt anyone is giving up a 2nd for Tonyan after one season. If they do, it is very acceptable compensation.

  7. PF4L March 16, 2021

    Why bother with a 2nd round? The difference is only a bit less than 1.4 million in compensation.
    It’s true….some team knee deep in cash of a bad team may sign him. So then that 1st round pick will likely be a high pick. Not a bad exchange for a recent UDFA right?
    For the 8th time and the LAST time….the other reason to tender him first round money is because he’s earned it, plain and simple.
    How many players have the Packers gifted tens of million of dollars to that haven’t earned it?
    Way too F….ing many imo.
    It’s about G D time that starts to change and Tonyan is a good start.
    He was paid $750,000 last season, and gave the Packers 11 TD’s. He doesn’t deserve 4.7 million for that?
    Preston Smith has been payed 33.5 million, before he even starts his 3rd season. He gave the Packers 16 sacks in his 2 seasons. What am i missing here?
    SMFH….i remember a linebacker not long ago who had 11 sacks in one season, the Packers gave him a winning lottery ticket he is currently using to enjoy an early retirement he began in his late 20’s.
    What’s next?….a year from now before completing an NFL pass Jordan Love signs a 3 year extension for 25 million a year?
    FACT CHECK: Who tied Travis Kelsie for the most TD’s scored among tight ends.
    Nickle and dime Robert Tonyan? C’mon Man!

  8. PF4L March 16, 2021

    Touching on Howards comment on the relationship between Rodgers and Tonyan.
    That is the non financial intangible that is so important.
    When you hear those two in interviews speak of each other there is an air of deep respect and likeness towards each other.
    They are honest….Tonyan speaks about how hard Rodgers can be on him, but he says he wants that because it makes him better. Overall you just hear a lot of love, a great relationship and how they’ve bonded.
    This is important because when Rodgers can bond like that with a player, special things happen, whether it’s was Cobb, Jordy, Adams, Jones, Williams, Tonyan, ect.
    When Davante struggled in his first couple of years, some fans wanted Adams benched, even released. But they didn’t know the relationship and the dynamics that were growing through those down years.
    As far as i’m concerned, when Rodgers has a special relationship with a player, the combination of QB/player relationship and production, is a rare find in the NFL. Rodgers is the King at it.
    Remember the first 4 games of the 2017 season before Rodgers got hurt? Nelson scored 6 TD’s with Rodgers.
    When Brett Hundley replaced Rodgers in that 5th game, that is…coincidently, the EXACT time when Nelson “got old”, when he “lost a step”.
    Those weren’t my words. Those were the words of fans and the talking heads of people who didn’t know any better.
    Because of the ineptness of Hundley, and the ultra safe play calling of McCarthy to protect Hundley….is when Jordy Nelson got old…..lol
    What a coincidence…right?
    I believe if Rodgers didn’t get hurt, in 2017, 2018, 2019 Nelson would have had double digit TD’s as usual. He wouldn’t have been released, because he was a TD machine.
    In 2016 Nelson led the league in TD’s.
    In the 5th game of the 2017 season (after 6 TD’s in the 1st 4 games with Rodgers), he got old and lost a step. <- One of the dumbest and most ignorant things i've ever heard.
    In 2018 when Rodgers came back. Gute thought it would be a good idea to send Nelson packing, breaking up one of the most prolific scoring tandems in the NFL.
    Then Gute doubles down and compounds that mistake, by making another one. Enter Jimmy Graham, now the leagues highest paid tight end.
    And…….we are still looking for a receiver ….to this day.
    But hey, we have Jordan Love, a rb who can come off the bench, a 3rd edge rusher, Josh Jackson and a couple of 3rd round tight ends that might even play someday.
    Keep up the good work Gute.
    Value those two Banners you won, hang them proud.

    1. Cheese March 16, 2021

      Lol, bingo. PF4L hit the nail on the head so hard that it’s already filing CTE claims with the players union.

      1. PF4L March 17, 2021

        I’ll tell ya Cheese, it’s been G D frustrating trying to explain the “obvious” over the years.
        It might take some years….but eventually the blinders come off and most people finally get it.

        1. PF4L March 17, 2021

          In other news: 4 dead…including a 7 year old girl in shooting…..over a stimulus check.
          28,000 senseless deaths annually, nobody says boo.
          8 senseless deaths annually by bad cops. then people want to raise he$$
          Follow the money.

  9. Mick March 16, 2021

    Right on!!!!! What happens in the next 6 weeks will tell if Gute is all in on winning now. Like we’ve stated before; we’ll believe it when we see it. You spent the time developing him, Rodgers trusts him, he’s productive; pay the man. There are many overpaid- underproductive players on this team that have either been around 3 years or so with little contribution. Cut some bait, and get Tonyan what he deserves!