GREEN BAY – Green Bay Packers tight end Jace Sternberger has been suspended without pay for the first two games of the 2021 regular season for violating NFL policy and program on substances of abuse, the league announced Thursday.
Sternberger will miss the Packers' regular-season opener Sept. 12 at the New Orleans Saints and home opener against the Detroit Lions. He is eligible to return for the Packers' third game Sept. 26 at San Francisco.
The 2019 third-round draft pick out of Texas A&M has had a slow start to his Packers career. After playing only six games in his rookie season, which he began on the physically unable to perform list, Sternberger caught his first touchdown pass in the NFC championship game at San Francisco.
Green Bay Packers tight end Jace Sternberger (87) during the second day of organized team activities. (Photo: Mark Hoffman, NP NAME-USA TODAY NETWORK)
The Packers hoped it would be a springboard into his second season. A year ago, it seemed just as plausible Sternberger could be a breakout tight end candidate as Robert Tonyan.
Instead, Sternberger caught just 12 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown in 12 games. His season ended in late November because of a concussion, but Sternberger cleared protocol before the postseason. He remained a healthy scratch as the Packers promoted Dominique Dafney to the game-day roster over him.
Tonyan, meanwhile, became that breakout star, tying Paul Coffman's franchise record of 11 touchdown receptions from the tight end position.
Sternberger entered this offseason staring at a potential crossroads in his career. He'll need to earn his spot in the offense knowing a place on the suspended list awaits him to start the season (he will be allowed to participate in training camp practices and preseason games).
The Packers have signed quarterback Jake Dolegala, giving them four players at the position who could be potential backups to Aaron Rodgers or provide depth in case Rodgers stays away from training camp.
To create roster space, the Packers released defensive lineman Anthony Rush.
Dolegala, a second-year player out of Central Connecticut State who spent minicamp with Green Bay in a tryout basis, originally signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent in May 2019. The 6-foot-7 signal caller spent parts of last season on the New England Patriots’ practice squad.
Dolegala participated in Packers minicamp on a tryout basis.
COVID concerns remain
As the Packers look forward to full-capacity stadiums this season after COVID-19 limited attendance last year, head coach Matt LaFleur is still working to ensure that the virus stays out of the locker room.
With the start of training camp roughly five weeks away, LaFleur estimates that Tier 1 (personnel with direct access to players) and Tier 2 (personnel in close proximity to players) coaching staff members are “pretty close to 100 percent” vaccinated for COVID-19, while players are “not quite there.”
“That's something that we're gonna try to continue to educate these guys on,” LaFleur said. “We're just stating the facts (based on) what the protocols are from the National Football League and certainly we'll encourage everybody, cause I do think that there's an advantage if you do get vaccinated.”
This offseason, LaFleur brought in an outside educator to speak to the group about the COVID-19 vaccine. LaFleur learned firsthand last year how losing a player for COVID-19-related reasons can impact the team, with players missing time for either testing positive or coming into close contact with someone who did.
Running back A.J. Dillon missed nearly six weeks of the regular season while recovering from COVID-19. Running back Jamaal Williams and inside linebacker Kamal Martin were deemed Dillon’s close contacts and missed a game.
“There's a lot less worry in terms of the close contacts, missing games (if players get fully vaccinated),” LaFleur said. “I know that affects guys differently in terms of whether or not they get paid and whatnot based on their contracts.”
Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff members are “expected to be vaccinated” unless they have a “bona fide medical or religious ground” against doing so, according to a memo obtained by the NFL Network.
Players are not required to be vaccinated. However, the NFL worked with the NFL Players Association to make drastic changes to its COVID-19 protocols last month that allowed vaccinated players and staff to operate at the team facilities as they normally would pre-pandemic. Unvaccinated players are still subject to daily testing, mask-wearing, physical distancing, quarantining after exposure and other restrictions on the road and in the facility.
“Walking around without a mask is definitely a free feeling,” LaFleur said. “So we're gonna encourage all the guys to get the vaccine, but ultimately it's their decision. You can't force this upon anybody and each individual has to make their most educated decision that fits their needs the best.
According to the NFL Network, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told teams in May that players and staff who get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine need to get their first shot this week to be fully vaccinated by the start of training camp. The NFL and NFLPA will continue to negotiate protocols as training camp approaches.
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