No Hockenson, no problem: Lions’ success at TE offers optimism for 2023, beyond
DETROIT. At 1–6, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes knew he needed to shake things up before the NFL trade deadline.
Thus, he made the unpopular move of sending TJ Hockenson to the Pro Bowl against division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick and a 2024 third-round pick.
Lions coach Dan Campbell viewed the trade as “extra food on the table” for other skilled offensive players. And these guys stepped up, especially the tight ends.
The Lions would use a committee approach in a tight position instead of one clear starting lineup, resulting in the group finishing the season with 12 combined touchdowns, second-best among all NFL teams led by Brock Wright (four), Shane Zilstra (four), Hawkenson (three) and James Mitchell (one).
Ahead of the 2023 season, the Lions (9-8) will be looking to build on their first winning season since 2017, which means they need to figure out what they want to do going forward.
This off-season, the team hired Steve Hayden as their new tight-match coach after he served in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals from 2019-22. Prior to this, Hayden held various positions with the Cardinals as an assistant special teams coach/assistant tight ends coach and also served as the team’s offensive line assistant coach. He joins a number of 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 will he have to work with? Here’s a closer look at the tight group ahead of next season.
How did the position perform in 2022?
Given the circumstances, the positional group worked to the best of its ability – on paper, perhaps even overfulfilled. Quarterback Jared Goff often showed confidence in his tight ends, which is how they set the franchise record for the most combined touchdowns in a single season by a tight end in Lions history (12).
The Lions also saw three different tight ends culminating in a multi-touchdown game in 2022, marking the first time in league history that a team had games that had at least two touchdown receptions from three different tight ends in a season. On the one hand, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, but it’s fair to wonder if this production will be sustainable in the future.
“It’s a good group, they’re working hard, they’re where they need to be and they’re opening well and I was able to find them,” Goff said of the depth of the tight end during practice. December 28 practice.
That lions have a return?
The Lions could well bounce back with the trio of Wright, Zilstra and Mitchell as they all signed reasonable contracts and were very productive, especially in the red zone, but it looks like the group needs an upgrade in terms of sheer talent to get to the next level. . Both Wright and Zilstra are exclusive free agents, meaning the Lions could sign them to one-year minimum contracts during the off-season.
Mitchell, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 draft, will also enter the second year of his rookie contract.
It will also be interesting to see what Hayden brings to coaching and what talent he chooses to help an offense that is in the top five in points per game (25.71).
What can we expect this offseason?
The Lions have two first-round picks – No. 6 (via the Los Angeles Rams) and No. 18 – in the upcoming NFL Draft, but it’s unlikely they’ll use any of their high picks in the tight end as improving protection is likely to be a top priority. However, they might go in that direction later in the draft on day two, or even bring in another free agent to improve the position.
The tight and corps were solid after the loss to Hockenson, but the group still came together at just 40 receptions as a trio that should improve. The Lions don’t need high-volume pass catchers, but they do need solid blockers who can help on the edge in both running and passing play. Austin Hooper, Hayden Hurst, Evan Angram, and Dalton Schultz are some potential veteran free agent targets the Lions could pursue this offseason.
“We will always be very strategic and selective in our approach,” Holmes said of the free agent plan during its availability at the end of the season in January. “… No matter how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we are always very selective and strategic about free will. And these are future UFAs that we have on our team, as well as external additions, but it will always be the same approach.”