15-year veteran leads one of the most potential-rich positions on the roster
GREEN BAY - For 15 years, Marcedes Lewis has been the exception to the rule, hovering in the 99th percentile in terms of longevity for a skill-position player in today's NFL.
A first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, the Packers' veteran tight end has caught 393 passes in a career that's spanned more than 200 regular-season games. Presently, he's one of only three members of his 255-player draft class still on an NFL roster.
With everything he's accomplished, Lewis could have cleaned out his locker in January and chosen to venture off into the next phase of his life without much debate.
But that's not what he wanted. Not yet.
After tasting the postseason for only the third time in his career, the 6-foot-6, 267-pound tight end affectionately known as "Big Dog" around Green Bay's locker room made it clear he desired to return and help finish what the Packers started in 2019.
"I think mentally and physically, I was in a really good place this year," said Lewis, prior to re-signing with Green Bay in March. "When I wake up in the morning, I still love it."
The transition to Matt LaFleur's scheme was a positive one for Lewis, whose playing time jumped from 190 offensive snaps (17.7%) in 2018 to 487 (45.2%). He caught five times as many passes (15) for four times as many yards (139), year over year.
While still considered one of the top blocking tight ends in the league, Lewis also was an important voice in the locker room and an emotional leader on a 14-win Packers squad.
That appreciation was obvious when the Packers scripted a goal-line package specifically for Lewis against the New York Giants last December. With Aaron Rodgers barking out "Big Dog," Lewis bodied up his defender off play-action and hauled in his first TD as a member of the Packers in a 31-13 blowout win.
"I still think he is playing at an extremely high level," said LaFleur recently. "I think he's one of the best blocking tight ends in the National Football League. And then when given the opportunity in the pass game, he produces for us. I know we didn't target him a bunch but he made some critical plays throughout the course of the season.
"You can never have enough guys like Marcedes Lewis on your football team."
This year, Lewis' job description will change to a small degree. Lewis again will be tasked with leading his position room but he'll do so without veteran Jimmy Graham alongside him after the Packers released Graham in early March.
Over the past few months, it's been up to Lewis to provide guidance for arguably the most potential-rich, albeit young, position room on the roster. Third-year veteran Robert Tonyan, and recent third-round picks Jace Sternberger and Josiah Deguara combine for only 38 NFL games played (including playoffs).
Tonyan, the former Indiana State receiver, made a successful transition to tight end and has earned a place on the Packers' active roster in each of the past two seasons. He appeared on the verge of a breakout prior to a hip injury sustained on a 23-yard catch against Dallas last October that hampered him for the remainder of the year.
Tonyan's injury came while the Packers were still without Sternberger, a third-round pick out of Texas A&M who missed the first half of 2019 due to the ankle injury suffered in the Packers' preseason finale against Kansas City.
Sternberger saw limited action in seven regular-season games after being activated from injured reserve in November but impressed the coaches with his versatility and blocking prowess.
The 6-foot-4, 251-pound tight end caught both his first NFL pass and touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. After the season, Lewis praised Sternberger for his potential and also his willingness to mix it up.
"He's got fearlessness, he's very aggressive," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of Sternberger. "He has a lot of intangibles, and I just think being able to be consistent, both being available and understanding what he needs to accomplish on the field, is going to be huge. If he gets that, he'll be a guy that potentially can help us."
The final chess piece the Packers added this offseason is Deguara, whose positional flexibility makes him a valuable asset for an offense that not only lost Graham but also fullback Danny Vitale in free agency.
Together, Graham and Vitale combined for nearly 800 regular-season snaps in last year's offense. It's possible the 36-year-old Lewis could see another jump in his workload but it likely will be some combination of Tonyan, Sternberger, Deguara and perhaps practice-squad holdover Evan Baylis filling most of that void.
However the numbers sort out, the Packers feel confident having Lewis standing in front of that meeting room for a third season.
"I was really excited to see 'Big Dog' come back because I think he not only adds such a great presence to our run-blocking scheme but also to our locker room," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's just a consummate professional, a fantastic leader for our football team, and bringing him back was an important part I think to shoring up that room."
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