Tonyan broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017 with the Detroit Lions, but was cut at the end of training camp. Four months later, he resurfaced on the Packers’ practice squad before making the 53-man roster the following summer.
The past two years served as a graduate program in what it means to play tight end at the game’s highest level. Tonyan’s professors? Marcedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham, two of the best blocking and pass-catching tight ends of their generation, respectively.
Matt LaFleur’s hiring as head coach brought tight ends coach Justin Outten into the mix in 2019, and after showing glimpses of greatness a year ago before a core-muscle injury interrupted his season, Tonyan has put it all together in 2020.
It’s not just the touchdowns or his 551 yards, either. Tonyan has developed into an all-around tight end. In Green Bay’s Week 14 win over Detroit, he chip-blocked Romeo Okwara into two other Lions pass-rushers to leave Aaron Rodgers unpressured. It bought his quarterback extra time to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling for 21 yards on third-and-14.
“There’s not many times you can look at four offensive linemen next to each other huddled up around three bodies on the ground,” said Outten last week. “It was a great hit. He did his job on that play and it was definitely cool to see.”
From a pure pass-catching standpoint, Tonyan has been a revelation for LaFleur’s offense that relies on packages with two tight ends. He’s athletic enough to win as a move tight end, with his catch-and-runs to the flat off play-action being a constant headache for defenses.
Tonyan also has been proficient as an in-line tight end and showcased a knack for finding holes in the secondary, leading to a couple of his TD grabs that have gone largely uncontested.
But it’s not by accident.
“He’s a savvy route-runner for being his size and real soft hands,” Outten said. “He’s got a feel for the second and third level and he knows how to manipulate third-level defenders. There’s others where he just continues with his route and it is a scramble situation, just continues to find a void in the defense. That’s the intelligence part of it and the feel part of it.
“If you’ve got that at this level, on top of all the other things you have with your talent, then you’re gonna find the ball and the ball’s gonna find you.”