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T.J. Hockenson figures to be the focal point of the Lions’ offense in 2021 and rightfully so. After tearing the ligaments in his ankle at the end of his rookie season, Hockenson was limited in his training last offseason, yet he went on to have a Pro Bowl season and is being touted this offseason as one of the top-five tight ends in the NFL. His 2020 stats—67 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns—seem like the floor for him this season.
The Lions targeted Josh Hill to be their TE2 this offseason, but only a few months after signing a one-year contract, Hill opted to retire from the NFL. The Lions quickly moved to sign Darren Fells—one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL—as a replacement, and he has already settled into his role with the team, understanding that his job is to help Hockenson thrive.
“(Hockenson’s) more of an F tight end—faster, moving around, receiving—and I’m more of a Y tight end, where I can go in there and do a little bit more of the dirty work,” Fells said during minicamp. “Had the conversation with him already, that if we’re both in there, I’ll be like an extra lineman for him, to give him time to get open, so he can bump that touchdown total up to 12.”
Hunter Bryant was the presumed leader for the TE3 job heading into the offseason, but an undisclosed injury away from the Lions’ training facility in Allen Park put a hold on that thought process. Per NFL rules, the Lions were not able to place him directly on injured reserve and instead had to release him first and hope he cleared waivers, which he did. Then, he reverted back to the Lions’ roster and they placed him on the reserve/NFI list.
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At this time we have no idea what Bryant’s injury is or how long he will remain out, but when coaches discuss the tight end room, his name is not included among the contenders for the TE3 role anymore, suggesting he may be out for a considerable time.
Therefore, beyond Hockenson and Fells, the remaining tight end roles are very much up for grabs.
Previously in this series, I have examined the initial 53-man rosters of the Los Angeles Rams (GM Brad Holmes), New Orleans Saints (coach Dan Campbell), and Los Angeles Chargers (offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) to help connect the dots for how the Lions may approach each position group.
The Rams kept four tight ends on their initial roster, and while only three played during the season, all four remained on the active roster. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett were the fourth and fifth-highest targeted players, with 44 and 41 catches respectively. The other tight end that played was Johnny Mundt, who caught just four passes for 10th place on the team’s pass-catchers. Rookie Brycen Hopkins got the Logan Stenberg treatment from the Rams: a fourth-round pick who was active in five games, only played two snaps on the season but was kept on the roster so he wouldn’t be poached by another NFL team.
Rams’ structure: Kept 4, used three as TE1A, TE1B, TE3
The Saints kept three tight ends and all three remained on the roster throughout the season. Jared Cook finished fourth on the Saints with 37 receptions, Adam Trautman was ninth with 15, and Hill checked in 11th with eight catches. While the targets indicate there was a clear TE1-3 in New Orleans, there was really a TE1 and then two TE2’s based on snap counts, as Trautman was a traditional option and Hill was a versatile choice that could line up all over the field.
Saints’ structure: Kept 3, TE1, TE2A, TE2B
The Chargers also kept four tight ends but they featured Hunter Henry as a true TE1 option, making him their second-highest targeted player (60 receptions). None of the other three exceed 10 receptions, and all were the 10th or lower options. With regards to snap distribution, Henry received the majority (78 percent), while Virgil Green (TE2) was injured early in the season (12 percent). That left Donald Parham (19 percent) and Stephen Anderson (12 percent) to receive upticks in their opportunities. Having four tight ends on the roster allowed the team to easily overcome Green’s injury, saving them the trouble of adding another player to replace him.
Chargers’ structure: Kept 4, TE1, TE2, TE3, TE4
Putting the Lions room together
None of the above models exactly mirror the talent at tight end on the Lions’ roster. Therefore, it’s fair to expect a blending of the systems, especially those of the Saints (where Campbell coached the tight end room) and Chargers who both featured true TE1 options.
“We have two vets in there and five young guys that are hungry and sense opportunity,” Lions’ TE coach Ben Johnson said. “… Each one of those guys brings something different to the table, skill set-wise. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they complement each other, because it’s a little bit of a puzzle how we put that room together. We don’t want three pass-catching tight ends. We don’t want three run-blocking tight ends. We want the best mix that makes us the biggest threat here on offense.”
So, depending on how things play out in training camp, the Lions will need at least a TE3 who can complement Hockenson and Fells, and potentially a TE4 who can play a variety of roles.
The “five young guys”
During OTAs and minicamp, the Lions routinely deployed Alize Mack as their third option in the 7-on-7 rotation. Mack showed athleticism and consistency and likely enters the fall as the lead candidate for the TE3 role. He would give the Lions a traditional tight end who could contribute as a blocker, on special teams, and could fill a TE2 role if there is an injury.
Jake Hausmann, a UDFA out of Ohio State, flashed at camp in the spring and has put himself in the mix for a role. He is a solid blocker, can contribute on special teams, and has the potential to line up as an H-back—something the Lions will be keeping an eye on with Hill no longer on the roster. He will challenge for the TE3 job, but if the Lions keep a TE4, Hausmann’s versatility and blocking prowess could make him the early leader in the clubhouse.
Brock Wright, a UDFA out of Notre Dame, has a similar skill set as Hausmann (blocker with H-back potential) but is also a high-level athlete, giving him an appealing upside. He hasn’t flashed yet in camp, but the potential is there for a developmental role.
Charlie Taumoepeau earned a contract with the Lions after a tryout during rookie minicamp and his ability to also potentially contribute as an H-back will give him a shot for a TE4 role or on the practice squad.
Hunter Thedford signed a futures deal in January, but the 6-foot-6, 274-pound former defensive end is still developing at the position.
How the Lions approach the latter part of the tight end room is truly an unknown at this time. Hockenson is the clear TE1, Fells the clear TE2, but after that, a lot will be determined during training camp. I fully believe that the Lions won’t enter camp thinking they need to have three or four tight ends on the roster, but will instead let their play on the field determine how many they keep on the roster.
So, will they stick with just three tight ends?
Do they want a traditional TE or an H-back capable player in that role?
Or will their desire for both open the door for TE4?
For now, I am penciling in four tight ends into my 53-man depth chart and giving them both options—though I am far from convinced this happens. So far this offseason, Mack has flashed as a traditional TE3 option and has the inside track for the job in my mind. At the same time, I believe Hausmann can play a multipurpose role as a TE4.
If they decide to keep just one, this will be one of the tighter back-end roster battles in training camp.