Green Bay Packers: What’s Next for Jace Sternberger?

For the time being, the Green Bay Packers always-evolving 53-man roster is set. As GM Brian Gutekunst has told us in the past, this part of the NFL calendar when rosters have to be trimmed to 53 players is “always difficult.”

While NFL rosters are constantly changing and the difficult decisions never truly stop — GMs can only hope for a brief reprieve — another big roster decision has to be made in a few weeks time. And that is, what do the Green Bay Packers do with Jace Sternberger?

Sternberger is serving a two-game suspension resulting from an incident in February of 2020. Since he is suspended, it spared the Packers from having to put him on the roster at this time–which bought them an extra few weeks to mull things over.

But by Week 3, when Sternberger’s suspension is complete, Green Bay will have to decide whether or not to put him on the 53-man roster. A decision that likely won’t be an easy one to make.

As we all know — I mean, it’s been well documented — Sternberger’s time in Green Bay has not gone as hoped for the former third-round pick. He’s dealt with various injuries and, in 2020, he spent some time on the reserve/COVID list, all of which has kept him off the field and slowed his growth.

In his first two NFL seasons, Sternberger has only 301 total offensive snaps–that’s very little in the grand scheme of things and is perhaps why the Green Bay Packers should show some leniency when it comes to either keeping or cutting Sternberger.

As I’ve discussed before, the transition for a tight end from college to the NFL level is one that comes with a very steep learning curve. Rarely — and I mean rarely — do we see rookie tight ends produce at a high level. It oftentimes takes until Year 2 and sometimes Year 3 before we see even the best tight ends breakout.

A big reason for the slower development is that these young tight ends just have a lot on their plates. They have to know blocking techniques and assignments like a tackle, but also have hands and know route concepts like a receiver. It just takes time, especially for such a raw prospect like Sternberger, who entered the NFL with really only one year of high-level college experience at the tight end position.

This Green Bay Packers tight end room is a crowded one, to say the least. Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, and Josiah Deguara are all going to see ample playing time as they each defined roles to fill on this team–Tonyan is more of the pass-catcher, Lewis is the traditional Y-tight end, while Deguara will fill the H-back role.

Meanwhile, Dominique Dafney flashed during his limited playing time in 2020 and brings a do-it-all skill-set to this team, similar to that of Deguara. He’s also going to be a key special teams contributor.

So for Sternberger, this was an important summer for him to showcase what he’s capable of and that he can carve out some sort of role in this deep tight end room. And the coaches wanted to see that from him as well–he played 98 offensive snaps this preseason.

On paper, things started out well as Sternberger hauled in three receptions for 35 yards against Houston, including a big play down the seam on a pass for Jordan Love that sparked a scoring drive.

However, the following day, when tight ends coach Justin Outten was asked about Sternberger’s performance, there was little praise given as he had done with other players. Instead, Outten discussed ways that Sternberger has to improve–and it’s this statement that perhaps sheds the most light on his standing within the organization.

“That one play doesn’t really describe the player,” Outten said via Sports Illustrated. “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.”

As a young and inexperienced tight end, consistency is always going to be the biggest hurdle, but the truly damming quote from Outten is that in Year 3 of the same offensive system, Sternberger is still struggling with the playbook.

Sternberger would go on to have a fairly quiet final two games of the preseason, hauling in two receptions for five yards on five targets, according to PFF ($$). This also included a whiffed block — albeit a difficult block, but a block that Sternberger needs to make — on the goal line that resulted in AJ Dillon being tripped up in the backfield.

“It’s just the confidence in it. It’s sitting in a room and understanding what to do but then going out and getting it performed,” Outten said via Sports Illustrated.

So again I ask the question, what do the Green Bay Packers do with Jace Sternberger?

Entering Year 3 and at a difficult position, it still feels too early to completely give up on him, but if Green Bay does add him to the roster, who do they take off? At tight end, the only realistic cut option is Dafney. If this is the route the Packers choose to go, it will ultimately come down to who is the better special teams player.

If Green Bay wants to roster five tight ends, which is a lot, they could perhaps get by with cutting Jonathan Garvin or Chauncey Rivers at edge rusher as long as Za’Darius Smith is healthy. Or maybe they go from five linebackers to four, but I don’t see that being the case since Isaiah McDuffie, Ty Summers, and Oren Burks will all be core special teams players.

Other than those few positions, I’m not sure where else the Packers could find roster space for Sternberger.

Another possible factor in all of this is that it is quite clear that the Green Bay Packers are “all-in” on this 2021 season, and if you don’t believe me, look at their future salary cap situation.

There certainly seems to be more urgency throughout the organization, knowing that this could be Aaron Rodgers’ final season, which means that Gutey and Co. may not show the same patience with young players that they’ve shown in the past. Green Bay moving on from Kamal Martin — a second-year player — is a prime example of this.

“It’s just constant evaluation and it’s going to be different for each guy,” Gutekunst said when asked generically about the fish-or-cut-bait conundrum with struggling top picks, per Sports Illustrated. “I think sometimes you get to a certain stage where it’s not good for the team to keep them around and then you have to move on. But, certainly, if we invest a draft pick in you and we invest time into you, we’re going to give you an opportunity to see if you can make it.”

Although Sternberger’s role in 2021 would likely be minimal given the construction of this tight end room, this position could look quite different in 2022 with Tonyan as a free agent, Lewis potentially retiring, and Dafney still being a relative unknown. There is the potential that Sternberger could see much more playing time next season.

However, that’s all contingent upon his development and that he gains the coaching staff’s trust on the field. But with Green Bay more focused on the now than the future, this may not be a huge concern for them at this time. It could be as simple as whether or not Sternberger can contribute right now—and I’m not so sure that he can.

As you can see, there is a lot to unpack with this decision. To add one more wrinkle, the team would save $785,556 in cap space by moving on from him, according to Over the Cap.

Ultimately, my guess is that Sternberger is cut. I just don’t see where he fits on this roster; couple that with what we saw this preseason, as well as Outten’s comments, and I think the writing is on the wall.

With that said, if the Green Bay Packers do choose to keep him, for the reasons mentioned — the inexperience, the difficulty of the position, and the unknown at tight end in 2022 — I’ll understand why they did.

In a perfect world,  if the Green Bay Packers move on from Sternberger, they would then be able to get him back on the practice squad so he can continue to develop and potentially be a part of this team in 2022. But that would require him clearing waivers first, and we all know how much NFL teams love taking a chance on a high draft pick.