Kittle had five touchdowns last season. Tonyan had one.
Kittle started every game last season. Tonyan started only the last game of the season.
Kittle is a homeowner. Tonyan is his tenant.
Tonyan spent almost the entire offseason in Nashville, Tennessee, where he not only worked out with Kittle, the San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl tight end, but he also lived with him.
“We pre-draft trained together, and we’ve been really good friends ever since,” Tonyan said. “I was going to find somewhere else to live in Nashville, and his wife was the one who was like -- you know, all wives are the boss -- and she was like, ‘Why don’t you just live here? We don’t mind.’”
Tonyan and Kittle became acquainted during the pre-draft process in 2017. They hired the same agent, Jack Bechta, who set up the two for workouts at EXOS in Dallas. They stayed in touch during their rookie seasons -- Kittle was drafted in the fifth round out of Iowa while Tonyan signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent out of Indiana State but was released at the end of camp. Tonyan caught on with the Packers late that season, spending the final four weeks on the practice squad.
Tonyan made the Packers’ roster last year coming out of camp, although not before a prank text on cut-down day gave him a scare. He played sparingly with one highlight play -- a 54-yard touchdown catch at Seattle on Nov. 15.
Wanted: Housemate with tight end experience
Tonyan, a high school quarterback turned receiver at Indiana State, knew he needed to put in more work to turn himself into a bona fide NFL tight end.
That’s when a group text from Kittle popped into his phone.
“I needed a roommate this offseason and I just shot a text out,” Kittle said. “Rob was the first to respond. It was completely random. I hadn’t seen him for about a year and a half and then he came down, lived with me. It worked out perfectly.”
They trained in Nashville, where Kittle’s father Bruce coaches the offensive line under former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer at Lipscomb Academy. In fact, at one point, George and his wife Claire, Kittle’s parents, Kittle’s sister Tonyan all lived together.
“It’s a four-bedroom, so there’s plenty of room,” Tonyan said.
Plus, Tonyan sounds like the ideal housemate.
“I’m an around-the-house guy; I like to do the laundry, clean the dishes,” he said. “I do my part. My mom cleans houses for a living, so I’m like that. I clean my house every night, too. I’m a weirdo like that.”
In Nashville, Kittle and Tonyan went through a variety of workouts. There was Josh Cuthbert, who focused on strength training.
And Jeremy Holt, who focused on speed and agility.
‘An absolutely insane athlete’
“You know what, he’s coming along really quickly,” Kittle said. “He’s an absolutely insane athlete, one of the most natural people I’ve ever seen catch a football. So when you have that going for you, and he’s an incredibly hard worker, he’s going to find success, which is good. He’s got Jimmy Graham in front of him so he’s learning from a really veteran tight end room, so he’s going to get really good really fast.”
Tonyan looks the part. The Packers list him at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, but Tonyan said: “I haven’t been in the 230s since my rookie year.”
“Right now, I’m at 248, close to 250,” he said. “Last year, I was around 244. I haven’t been 237 for a while. It upsets me looking at it. Like I gained all this weight for no reason? Maybe they’ll change it one of these days.
“I think I went down in body fat but went up in weight, which is good. That’s what people were saying, that I looked leaner, but at the same time I gained weight, so that’s good.”
What should go up are his catch numbers.
It was confounding last season that even after his big play against the Seahawks, Tonyan’s playing time didn’t spike significantly.
That should be different this season. Tonyan’s reps with the starters have increased this summer, and even though he still has veterans Graham and Marcedes Lewis in front of him and rookie third-round pick Jace Sternberger behind him, Tonyan could be the Packers’ future playmaker at the position.
“Kid’s doing amazing,” Graham said. “What he’s done, even with his body putting on weight, what he’s done in the run game, obviously he’s going to help us out a lot this year. He’s obviously got great hands, and I love being around him, I love teaching him, and he soaks it all up. So it’s awesome to be an older guy, give him some of my knowledge and get him back. He just soaks it up.”
It doesn’t hurt that the quarterback has taken a liking to him, too.
Rodgers affectionately refers to Tonyan as “Bobby” and hasn’t shied away from throwing him the ball.
“He's a very good route runner,” Rodgers said. “He's got fantastic hands. I moved to my left [in an early training camp practice] and threw a ball that he basically one-hand tipped to himself for an easy catch. He does that stuff all the time. He's a very natural receiver and the blocking is where I've seen some improvement with Bobby.”
No apartment necessary
Tonyan views this as a long-term project.
While he wants his playing time to spike this season from just the 67 snaps he got last year, he knows it’s a process.
“I understand who is in front of me; I’ve got a 14-year guy and a 10-year guy in front of me, and they’re still helping me,” Tonyan said of Lewis and Graham. “After every play, if I do a good job, they tell me why I did a good job. If I struggled on a play, they tell me this is what you did and this is what you need to change.”
He also knows that he wants to stick with Kittle for offseason workouts again next year.
And he’s even willing to get his own place.
“I asked them, ‘Hey, can you guys help me find an apartment for next year?’” Tonyan said. “And they’re like, ‘No you can just stay with us.’”
ESPN 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner contributed.