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Dougherty: Trade for Robert Tonyan's replacement? Josiah Deguara offers appealing in-house option

GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers spent a top-100 draft pick on Josiah Deguara in 2020.

Now they need him to play like one.

Until this week, coach Matt LaFleur had the luxury of letting Deguara slowly work his way back into the Packers’ offense after undergoing ACL surgery last year. LaFleur had ascending Robert Tonyan in the passing game and Marcedes Lewis as a blocker to take up the bulk of the snaps at tight end.

That changed last Thursday night in Arizona when Tonyan’s season ended because of a torn ACL. The loss is bigger than Tonyan’s stats (18 receptions, two touchdowns) might suggest. Anyone who attended training camp daily saw a player who’d improved from a near Pro Bowl season in 2020. It was only a matter of time before Tonyan’s numbers spiked this season.

The Packers now have to absorb the loss of one of their better offensive weapons. And barring an 11th-hour trade before Tuesday’s 3 p.m. CT deadline, the first player they’ll be looking to is Deguara, who brings a different set of skills than Tonyan but was drafted in the third round (No. 94 overall) in 2020 to play a big role in LaFleur’s scheme.

“Some things just really don’t need to be talked about,” Deguara said Monday in acknowledging the slack he and fellow backup Dominique Dafney have to pick up.

There is always the chance general manager Brian Gutekunst will add a tight end via the trade market, too, though I don’t see the need to add just another player at that position. Dafney is a good blocker, and the Packers can promote Branson Kaufusi from the practice squad as a fourth tight end. Kaufusi was one of Aaron Rodgers’ unsung favorites in training camp.

If Gutekunst is going to add a tight end, it might as well be a true receiving threat, and the name that jumps out is Evan Engram of the New York Giants. Engram, a first-round pick in 2017, has underachieved and is a free agent in the offseason, so he’s probably available. Whether he’d be worth a half-season rental at whatever price the Giants set for him plus $3.3 million in remaining salary is another matter. Short-term moves that look good on paper often don’t turn out so well.

Chances are Deguara and Dafney will be replacing Tonyan, and it will give the Packers’ offense a little different look.

As far as Deguara’s recovery from the ACL tear on Oct. 5 last year, he should be about full speed.

Last offseason I had a long conversation with an orthopedist for another NFL team about ACL reconstructions, and he explained why players often return to play in nine months but need longer for the knee to feel normal.

Though the ACL graft remodels into a ligament in six to eight months, it takes a full year for the new ligament to generate neurons and the brain to re-connect them with the rest of the leg. Deguara presumably had surgery in later October – surgeons typically wait at least two weeks for swelling to subside before operating – and didn’t begin practicing until mid-August, just shy of 10 months after surgery.

He probably passed the year mark late last month.

“Three percent of the ACL is nerve fibers,” the doctor said, “and those nerve fibers run a sub-program in your brain of where your knee is in space, so when you’re playing you don’t have to think about where your knee is. When you rip it you have to re-form those connections, and it takes 12 months to do that.”

Even fully healthy, Deguara is a much different tight end than Tonyan, so the Packers’ offense will look different with him playing more than the 19.8 percent of the offensive snaps he has participated in so far this season.

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Deguara is not in Tonyan’s class as a receiving threat – he lacks Tonyan’s height (6-4 5/8 to 6-2 3/8) and speed (4.58-second 40 to 4.72 seconds). But Deguara is a better blocker and will line up at fullback and H-back more than Tonyan ever did. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon might become an even bigger part of the offense than they already are.

“All our backs do a really good job (receiving) out of the backfield,” LaFleur said. “It could provide more targets for our wide receiving corps. So we're going to have to get that production in other areas.”

Deguara is not the only tight end the Packers recently drafted in the third round. In 2019 they projected Jace Sternberger as an athletic receiving threat similar to what Tonyan has become. But Sternberger washed out because of injuries and immaturity, and the Packers cut him in September after he’d served a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. He’s now Washington’s No. 4 tight end.

It’s also worth noting that Deguara was a favorite of LaFleur’s in the lead-up to the ’20 draft. LaFleur’s offensive mentor, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, has one of the top niche players in the league in Kyle Juszczyk, who when healthy plays about 60 percent of the 49ers’ snaps as a fullback and H-back. He combines outstanding blocking with capable receiving in an offense that still has a place for his skill set.

Deguara’s background is as a move tight end, not a fullback, so he’s not exactly Juszczyk. But LaFleur clearly saw him as potentially the Packers’ version of Juszczyk– a player who can create matchup problems in an offense where running the ball is a priority.

“I love Josiah,” LaFleur said at the ’20 draft. “He is extremely versatile. The thing he brings to our offense is, we can be in the same personnel grouping and we can line him up on the line of scrimmage or in a wing alignment or in the backfield. I think that adds stress on the defense.”

Deguara’s torn ACL in Week 4 last year prevented LaFleur from seeing much of Deguara in that role. The long recovery from surgery then left him an afterthought in LaFleur’s offseason planning through eight games this year.

Deguara is an afterthought no more. He now has a couple months to show whether LaFleur was right in thinking he’d be a great match to the scheme.

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