Bears’ Robert Tonyan switches to hometown side of NFL’s best rivalry

The new Chicago tight end has a signed Brian Urlacher jersey in his basement. His former Packers teammates understood.

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Packers tight end Robert Tonyan catches a pass against the Bears in 2020.

Packers tight end Robert Tonyan catches a pass against the Bears in 2020.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Tight end Robert Tonyan has a signed Brian Urlacher jersey in his basement.

His former Packers teammates understood.

“Everyone knows where I’m from and the pride I have in my hometown,” he said.

Now the McHenry East grad gets to play for his hometown team. The Bears signed him to a one-year deal Thursday night, giving quarterback Justin Fields another pass-catching weapon. Tonyan’s 470 receiving yards last season would’ve ranked third on the Bears and were only 74 yards shy of team leader Cole Kmet.

As for his former quarterback, Tonyan said he wasn’t particularly surprised by Aaron Rodgers’ stare-down with the Packers. The future Hall of Famer wants to be traded to the Jets.

“I don’t want to say this in a bad way, but it’s just kinda the norm over the years — just kinda with moving parts,” he said Friday. “And you never know what’s happening toward the end of a lot of players’ careers on that side. . . .

“[Rodgers] earned the right to have that attention and say-so with his future.”

Tonyan wanted a say in his, too. He said he didn’t press the Packers about their quarterback plans before deciding where to go next.

“I think just kind of holding my future in my own hands was the biggest thing for me this year,” he said. “Making the right decision, the next move just very cautiously. I think — not I think, I believe, I know I made the right decision.”

He knows the Bears’ offense, having played in a similar system with the Packers and for Bears coordinator Luke Getsy. He was the Packers’ passing-game coordinator in Tonyan’s monster 2020 season. He had 11 touchdown receptions that year; only six Bears have ever had more in one season.

“This offense goes through the tight ends, whether it’s blocking, passing, whatever it is,” Tonyan said. “And just a good pair. Cole’s a great tight end. He’s big, strong, and I think that adding that — that can complement me and him.”

The two have different skills, with Kmet considered the better blocker. Tonyan, a former college wide receiver, was in the slot 28% of the time and split wide 14% of the time last season. Kmet played the slot 26% of the time and was split wide on 8% of his offensive plays.

That Tonyan is playing tight end at all is amazing. At Indiana State, he played 11 games at quarterback as a redshirt freshman before switching to wide receiver the following offseason. He moved to tight end after college and was cut by the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2017.

“Some people’s paths and destinations are just different, and it just kind of goes to show my personality is, ‘Just keep going,’ ” he said.

He started one game each in 2018 and 2019 for the Packers before totaling 16 starts over his last three seasons. His 2021 season was cut short when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

“Changing from quarterback to receiver and now to tight end, just playing football is my dream and my life,” he said. “I love it. . . .

“Did I think I’d be a tight end for the Bears? No. But did I think I’d play for the Bears? Yeah, absolutely. In my brain, I was playing for the Bears my whole life. I’m just super-pumped to be here.”

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