Detroit Lions, NFC North positional previews: Tight Ends

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(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Leading up to training camps, SideLion Report previews position groups for the Detroit Lions, and the rest of the NFC North. Today, we look at tight ends.

2019 was a banner year for tight ends in the NFL. Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers each held single-season receiving yardage record at the position, and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots wrapped up a brilliant career with another Super Bowl win. The Detroit Lions on the other hand, endured a forgettable season from their tight ends, and are counting on a much better campaign from the unit after a series of offseason changes.

The Lions completely revamped their moribund tight end group this offseason, with hopes of bringing more balance to the offense. How does it stack up against the rest of the division? Here are their 2019 outlooks, starting with the Lions:

Detroit Lions

Key returning players: None

New additions: T.J. Hockenson (Rookie), Jesse James, Isaac Nauta (Rookie), Logan Thomas

Key losses: Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Michael Roberts

No position group on the Detroit Lions underwent more restructuring this offseason than tight end, and no unit needed it more. Not a single tight end who caught a pass for the Lions in 2018 remains on the roster. Those players combined for just 45 catches, 461 receiving yards and four touchdown receptions last year.

In their place are a host of new players that the Lions hope can elevate the the offense and contribute on special teams. The most notable of these is T.J. Hockenson, whom the Lions selected with the eighth overall selection in April’s draft. Not since 2006, when Vernon Davis was chosen sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers, had a tight end been selected that high.

Hockenson was universally lauded as the most complete tight end to enter the draft in years, and the Lions eschewed selecting other tempting players to address their weakest position group. He is equally adept at affecting the run game with his impressive blocking as he is at making athletic, sure handed catches all over the field.

On one hand, tight end is a notoriously difficult position for rookies to grasp, and the Lions may need to exercise patience with their highest draftee. On the other, top ten picks are generally expected to make an early impact, and the Lions are in dire need of a quick start to the 2019 season.

Lions fans know all too well the pitfalls of heaping expectations on a rookie at the position, as they never got the production out of former tenth overall pick Eric Ebron that they expected. Keep a close eye on Hockenson’s progress throughout training camp and the preseason, as it could be a barometer for the Lions’ offensive success.

Prior to drafting Hockenson, the Lions signed free agent Jesse James, after he spent his first four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. James made steady progress in the Steel City, but never felt that he was used effectively, and will be looking to expand his role at just 24 years old. At 6-7, he is a massive target that should help the Lions in the red zone and in the short to intermediate area of the field. He is an adequate blocker, and will also be the de facto elder statesman in a young position room.

A key battle throughout the preseason will be between another rookie tight end, Isaac Nauta and converted quarterback Logan Thomas. The Lions liked Nauta’s ability to get open against tough competition in college, but also value Thomas’ special teams ability. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is likely to frequently use 12-personnel (two tight ends on the field) groupings meaning the Lions could once again keep four players on the roster at the position. Should they not, these two will be in direct competition.

It can only get better for the Lions at at tight end compared to 2018. How early Hockenson grasps the offense and whether James is able to make good on his proclamation of being of better value will be significant factors in the Lions’ offensive performance this year.

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