DETROIT – At 1-6, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes knew he had to shake things up before the NFL trade deadline.
So, he made the unpopular move of sending Pro Bowl tight end TJ Hockenson to their division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in exchange for a 2023 second-round draft pick and a 2024 third-round pick.
Lions coach Dan Campbell viewed the trade as “more food on the table” for the rest of the skill players who have been quiet.
The Lions would go with a committee approach at the tight end position instead of one obvious starter, which resulted in the group finishing the season with 12 combined touchdowns, tied for second most among any team NFL, led by Brock Wright (four), Shane Zylstra (four), Hockenson (three) and James Mitchell (one).
Looking ahead to the 2023 season, the Lions (9-8) will look to build on their first winning season since 2017, which means they will have to figure out what they want to do going forward.
This offseason, the team hired Steve Heiden as their new tight ends coach after serving in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals from 2019 to ’22. Prior to that, Heiden held various roles with the Cardinals as a special teams assistant/assistant tight ends coach, as well as serving as the team’s assistant offensive line coach. He joins several other former NFL players on Campbell’s staff having played 11 seasons in the NFL from 1999 to 2009 with the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns.
What does he have to work with? Here’s a closer look at the inflated group ahead of next season.
How did the position perform in 2022?
Given the circumstances, the site group performed as well as possible — on paper, perhaps even overachieving. Quarterback Jared Goff has often shown confidence in his tight ends, which is how they set a franchise record for the most combined touchdowns in a single season by a tight end in Lions history (12).
The Lions also finished with three different tight ends with a multi-touchdown game in 2022, which was the first time in league history that a team had at least two receptions from three different tight ends in a season. On the one hand, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but it’s fair to wonder if that production is sustainable in the future.
“They’re a good group, they work hard, they’re where they’re supposed to be and they do a good job of getting themselves open, and I was able to find them,” Goff said of the tight end depth with periodical pool. December 28 practice.
What do the Lions have coming back?
The Lions could very well run him back with the trio of Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell, as they were all signed to decent contracts and were very productive, especially in the red zone, but it seems the group needs an upgrade in terms of pure talent to reach the next level. Both Wright and Zylstra are exclusive rights free agents, meaning the Lions can sign them to at least one-year major league deals this offseason.
Mitchell, drafted in the fifth round in 2022, will also enter the second year of his rookie deal.
It will also be interesting to see what Heiden brings to the table on the coaching side and what kind of talent he will favor to help an offense that was in the top five in points scored a game (25.71).
What should we expect this season?
The Lions have two picks in the first round — No. 6 (via Los Angeles Rams) and No. 18 — in the upcoming NFL draft, but they’re unlikely to use any of their high picks on tight end, as an improvement. defense is likely to be a top priority. However, they could go in that direction later in the draft on Day 2 or even bring in another free agent to upgrade the position.
The tight end corps was solid after losing Hockenson, but the group only combined for 40 receptions as a trio, which needs to be improved. The Lions aren’t looking for high-volume pass catchers but are looking for gritty blockers who can help on the edge in both the running and passing game. Austin Hooper, Hayden Hurst, Evan Engram and Dalton Schultz are some veteran free agent targets that the Lions could pursue in the offseason.
“We’re always going to be very strategic and very selective with our approach,” Holmes said of the free agency plan during his offseason availability in January. “… No matter how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we’re always very selective and very strategic about how we do free agency. And that’s upcoming UFAs on our team as well as outside additions, but it’s always going to be the same approach.”