GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For most teams with restricted free agents, the decision is easy: Tender them at the lowest rate -- this year projected at $2.133 million -- and see if they can replicate what they did the previous season or even take their game to another level.
Tight end Robert Tonyan is not most restricted free agents.
And because of it, the Green Bay Packers have a more difficult decision to make.
If they use the lowest tender, called a "right of first refusal," another team almost certainly would make him an offer. Tight ends with 11 touchdowns don't just walk in off the street every offseason. The Packers could match any offer but considering their salary-cap situation -- they're still about $12 million over their projected cap for this season -- a team might smartly structure the deal to front load it and make it difficult for Green Bay to match. And if the Packers don't match, they would not receive any compensation in return.
That means general manager Brian Gutekunst will be forced to use either the first-round tender (with a price tag projected at $4.766 million by OverTheCap.com) or the second-round tender (that would pay him a projected $3.384 million this season). Other teams still could sign Tonyan, 26, to an offer sheet, but it would cost them. The Packers would have the right to match it. If they didn't, they would receive that team's first- or second-round pick in return.
Green Bay hasn't been in this position since 2013, when cornerback Sam Shields was a restricted free agent. They gave him the second-round tender, at the time $2.023 million. He skipped the voluntary offseason program that year but signed the tender shortly before the mandatory minicamp in June. He played under the tender and then a year later signed a four-year, $39 million deal.
That option might appeal to Tonyan more than if the Packers tried to do, say, a two-year contract now. Instead of the RFA tender, they might offer Tonyan a deal that would pay him more in the first year than the tender but be beneficial to the team by spreading out some of the cap charges over two years. Or they could even do a longer-term deal like the Cowboys did last season with tight end Blake Jarwin. He was scheduled to be a restricted free agent but instead signed a four-year, $22 million deal that included $9.25 million guaranteed.
At this point, though, no such talks have taken place.
Teams must tender restricted free agents by March 17 at 4 p.m. ET, when the league year begins.
Tonyan's relative lack of bargaining power goes back to how he entered the NFL as an undrafted player. Unlike draft picks who sign four-year deals, Tonyan was living year to year. Undrafted players typically sign three-year deals, but Tonyan's original contract was terminated when the Lions released him following his rookie training camp in 2017.
The Packers signed him to the practice squad in December of that year and his first accrued season of service toward free agency came in 2018. Players need four years of service to qualify for unrestricted free agency.
Tonyan played last season for the third-year minimum of $750,000 so either way, he's in line for a raise.
This much is certain: the Packers don't have another tight end like Tonyan. His 11 touchdowns not only tied for the league lead among tight ends last season but also tied a franchise record for tight end touchdown catches in a season. He ranked second on the Packers with 52 receptions (on 59 targets) and third in receiving yards (586).
His ascent really began in 2019, when he showed signs of a breakout before he sustained a core muscle injury that eventually required postseason surgery.
"The limited amount of opportunities he had last year, you could see him getting better every week," Packers tight ends coach Justin Outten said late last season. "The jump that he made from last season to this season was a pretty big one. Not only is he doing his thing in the passing game, but he's coming alive in the run game and the protection world.
"It's a credit to him taking it personal and working on his weaknesses and trying to make them his strengths. You could see it trending up last year, but he's just ran with it since then."
The Packers' other restricted free agents include: quarterback Tim Boyle, defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster, cornerback Chandon Sullivan and safety Raven Greene. If the Packers don't tender them, then they would become free agents on March 17.