Sitting in the Hancock Whitney Stadium stands for a Senior Bowl practice last week, MLive Lions reporter Ben Raven, Nolan Bianchi of the Detroit News and myself were approached by a well-known national media member about the Lions possibly selecting a tight end high in the 2023 NFL draft.
“I don’t think they’re taking one at all, to be honest,” Raven responded to a dumbfounded inquisitor. Bianchi and I quickly nodded our heads in agreement.
Herein lies one of the primary disconnects between those who closely follow the Detroit Lions and those who view the team from more distance.
Tight end is generally listed by national media as one of the Lions’ biggest needs. In fact, it’s the No. 1 or No. 2 offensive need listed for Detroit at CBS Sports, NFL.com, The Draft Network, Pro Football Focus and ESPN, all within the last month.
Never mind that the team doesn’t currently have a right guard, not with Evan Brown a free agent and Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Tommy Kraemer both coming off back surgeries that caused them to miss the entire 2022 season. Or that Jared Goff is literally the only quarterback on the entire roster, including reserve/future contracts. Or that running backs No. 1 (Jamaal Williams) and No. 3 (Justin Jackson) are free agents, as is wide receiver No. 2 (DJ Chark).
Nope. None of that matters because national pundits have to conclude that the Lions desperately need a new tight end to replace the one they traded away, Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson.
It seems nobody asks the question of why the Lions traded away Hockenson in the first place.
Hockenson is in Minnesota instead of Detroit for a couple of reasons. Foremost is that the Lions knew they were never going to pay the market rate to keep Hockenson, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract and had already been making noise about a lucrative extension. Most projections for Hockenson’s next contract start in the $15 million-a-year range, and that’s simply not something the Lions were not going to consider.
It wasn’t discontent with Hockenson. Far from it. Hockenson had just posted one of the best games by a tight end in NFL history. This current Detroit offense, led by rising star OC Ben Johnson and head coach Dan Campbell, a longtime NFL tight end himself, simply doesn’t require a premium tight end to operate effectively.
Folks outside of Detroit might not know the names Brock Wright or James Mitchell. Inside Allen Park, those guys are viewed as great fits for exactly what this Lions team wants from its tight ends. They can chip-and-release, they can execute the run-blocking assignments, and they can motion or flex out depending on the set.
Wright caught four touchdown passes after Hockenson was traded. No. 3 tight end Shane Zylstra caught three in one game. Like Wright and Mitchell, he’s under contractual control through at least 2024.
The key player here is Mitchell. Detroit’s fifth-round pick in 2022, Mitchell started slowly as he recovered from a knee injury suffered near the end of his collegiate career at Virginia Tech. A well-built 6-foot-4 and 250-pound athlete, Mitchell proceeded to catch every single pass thrown his way in 2022 and improved as a blocker along the way.
The Lions love Mitchell. Love him, in a way that’s difficult to explain to someone on the outside who only sees 11 receptions for a fifth-round rookie they probably spent 10 minutes scouting over a year ago.
Back to the offense. After sputtering in the first week without Hockenson, a game the Lions also played without Chark or No. 3 WR Josh Reynolds and with top WR Amon-Ra St. Brown and explosive RB D’Andre Swift severely limited with injuries, the Jared Goff-led offense (no, I can’t call it the Goffense, sorry) soared without having a high-end tight end.
Instead of using Hockenson as one of the primary targets, Campbell and Johnson opened up the field more without their alpha tight end. It worked beautifully. Goff didn’t throw an interception the rest of the season and the Lions offense efficiently hummed along as one of the NFL’s best and most diverse. Wright, Mitchell and Zylstra provided enough firepower at TE on their own, notably in the red zone.
In short, the Lions didn’t miss Hockenson the player.
Should the Lions consider adding a tight end this offseason? Absolutely. Zylstra, for his red-zone heroics, is a low-end blocker and eminently replaceable. Depth is always welcomed. But it’s absolutely not a priority need for the Lions. Be very surprised if you see Detroit drafting a tight end before about the fifth round. I know I would be.