The Green Bay Packers have a tough decision to make after their Week 2 home opener against the Detroit Lions. Tight end Jace Sternberger will be done serving his two-game suspension then and GM Brian Gutekunst must decide whether to activate the former third-round pick to the active roster or let him go.
Sternberger has struggled since the Packers drafted him in 2019. He missed most of his rookie season due to a concussion and an ankle injury. The Packers activated him for the final six games of the regular season but he did not catch a pass and played only 60 offensive snaps that season.
In the playoffs that year, Sternberger caught three passes including his first NFL touchdown and many experts were optimistic he would play a bigger role with the team in 2020.
Unfortunately, the Texas A&M alum struggled again in his second year with the Packers. He was diagnosed with Covid-19 during training camp which slowed his progress and prevented him from truly competing for the starting tight end job. Robert Tonyan emerged as the starter and had a Pro Bowl-caliber season with 11 touchdown catches.
Sternberger did play in 12 games but wasn’t at full strength as he recovered from Covid. He finished the season with 12 catches for 114 yards and one touchdown. He was inactive for the team’s final four regular-season games due to injury and he did not play in the playoffs.
Then, during the offseason, it was revealed that the league had suspended Sternberger for two games to start this season because he fell asleep at the wheel of his car after taking anti-depressants and having too much to drink.
Despite the suspension, Sternberger was eligible to participate in all of training camp and all three preseason games. Unfortunately, the third-year tight end continued to be inconsistent.
In the first preseason contest, Sternberger had the longest completion of the game, a 34-yard pass from Jordan Love that was a key play on a scoring drive. He finished the game with three catches for 35 yards.
While he had a long catch down the seam, tight ends coach Justin Outten was less than complimentary when asked about Sternberger. “That one play doesn’t really describe the player,” Outten said after the game. “It’s more consistently what you’re putting in day in and day out. With his consistency, it’s kind of been sporadic. Whether it’s still getting used to the playbook or feeling around the line of scrimmage, he’s still having some up-and-down days. With the extra reps that he’s getting, he’s got a handle it a little bit better in a sense of more video and doing the extra things outside. But that’s all fixable. Those things can come along. This is a huge preseason for him with these three games and being the guy and getting as much reps as possible in these live settings. He can grow from some lessons that he learned last night and then moving forward.”
Against the Jets, Sternberger had a touchdown pass and a key drop, again, showing more inconsistent play.
In the preseason finale, Sternberger missed a key block on a fourth-and-one running play that was stopped short of the first down by the player who the tight end failed to block. He failed to have much impact as a receiver.
The criticisms of Sternberger have been his consistency, his knowledge of the playbook and his lack of blocking ability. While Sternberger is primarily a receiving tight end, he does have to know how to block adequately when called upon to see the field more often.
The Packers are deep at tight end and that is working against Sternberger. Tonyan is the established starter at receiving tight end with Marcedes Lewis acting as the primary blocking tight end. Josiah Deguara, who the Packers drafted in the third round one year after Sternberger, is expected to line up as an H-back, tight end and fullback. Dominique Dafney is presently the fourth tight end on the roster. He has been a solid special teams player and pitched in as a blocker and receiver late last season while Sternberger was out of the lineup.
Tight end is not an easy position to learn for young players. Rookie tight ends rarely make large contributions since there is a lot to learn at this position including pass routes and blocking assignments. Sternberger’s progress has been stunted by a spate of injuries but his lack of knowledge of the playbook is a big disappointment after three training camps in Matt LaFleur’s system.
Injuries may factor into the ultimate decision. If any of the four tight ends presently on the roster get hurt in the first two games, that opens the door for Sternberger to claim a roster spot. If they all stay healthy, the Packers will have a tough choice to make.
There are two questions the Packers need to answer before determining whether to keep Sternberger. First, has he shown enough potential to justify keeping him this year. If tight ends take a few seasons to learn their craft, the light could come on for Sternberger this season if he can finally stay healthy and get more reps.
The second question is whether there is room for Sternberger on the team. The Packers have four tight ends on the active roster and Bronson Kaufusi is presently on the practice squad. Would the Packers release a tight end to make room for Sternberger or would they sacrifice a player at another position? If they release Sternberger, would they try to stash him on the practice squad if he clears waivers?
Gutekunst has already showed he is willing to move on from former draft picks when he let linebacker Kamal Martin go last month. Is Sternberger next or does he return to the team and get one more chance to prove he can contribute to the Packers offense? In two weeks, we will all know the short-term fate of the Packers third-round pick in the 2019 draft. His career is clearly at a crossroads.
You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers