Tight ends key to unlocking Detroit Lions offensive potential

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions’ offense could really take off this year behind their top two tight ends

After years of fielding underperforming players at the tight end position, the Detroit Lions were supposed to be different last year. That after the team invested a high first-round selection and signed a pricey free agent to address the needs of the position.

That first-rounder, chosen eighth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, was Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson. And that free agent was Jesse James, fresh of a successful four-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet, both underperformed in their first season in Detroit, continuing that unfortunate tradition.

After Week One, Hockenson appeared to be the first-round tight end Lions’ fans were promised with the selection of Eric Ebron back in 2014. After all, the rookie posted a record-breaking stat line of six receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown in a tie with the Arizona Cardinals. But Hockenson failed to reproduce those results the rest of the season, eventually landing on Injured Reserve in early December due to an ankle injury.

But rookie tight ends struggling in their first NFL season isn’t uncommon. And the Lions’ had already purchased an insurance policy by inking James to a four-year, $28.5 million deal in the offseason. Unfortunately, the veteran struggled in his first season in the Motor City too.

James would record just 16 catches off 27 targets for 142 yards in 2019 and failed to the endzone. His catch percentage of 59.3 was the lowest of his career. Pro Football Focus gave James an overall grade of 53.7 for his performance in 2019. Again, a career-low.

The Detroit Lions and the success of 12 personnel

After making such a strong investment into the position last year, the Lions are undoubtedly hoping this duo can turn things around in 2020. Here’s what Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press wrote about Hockenson and his importance to the team’s success this upcoming season.

"“The Lions are counting on [Hockenson] to be a bigger part of their offense this fall, and training camp is his chance to show he can be the consistent player they desire, both as a blocker and receiver. The five NFL teams that used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) the most last season all made the playoffs, and the Lions have plenty of two-tight sets in their playbook.”"

There’s certainly a well-documented history of young tight ends excelling in their second season in the NFL. And Lions’ fans have to hope that will be the case for a prospect as highly-touted coming out of college as Hockenson was.

As for James, establishing his role in Detroit and doing so next to a player chosen in the first round was clearly difficult. Hoping for a much better performance in 2020 following an offseason training program turned entirely virtual until now due to a worldwide pandemic is certainly a big ask.

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Yet, both T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James should benefit from being in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s scheme for the second season in a row. And perhaps that shorthand will allow this duo to grow and develop quickly. But the biggest boost to this unit could be having quarterback Matthew Stafford back under center again after missing half of last season due to injury.