These were not the tight ends that the Lions were looking for.
Not an injured T.J. Hockenson and a seldom-targeted Jesse James.
The Lions had higher hopes for their prolific offense, featuring Hockenson, the No. 8 overall pick in last season’s draft and James, whom they signed for four years and about $25 million. Following a productive four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, James looked to be leveling up, after a career-best 14.1 yards per catch in 2018.
It didn’t turn out that way. James played in all 16 games, but he notched just 16 catches last season, and no touchdowns. Hockenson saw more targets (59), catches (32) and touchdowns (two), though he missed the last four games.
That left questions for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell about how the Lions would make tweaks this season and try to tie in the tights ends to what otherwise was a prolific offense. That is, until quarterback Matthew Stafford was injured and missed the last eight games of the season, sent everything into a tailspin.
“The season was pretty brutal. We had a rough patch there at the end and couldn’t find a way to win,” James said Thursday. “We battled every week but any time you go that long without winning, it’s tough on you mentally and the whole team. It was a different situation that I hadn’t been in.”
James had gotten accustomed to postseason spots with the Steelers, so the turnaround took some getting used to. Working with Bevell and finding a sweet spot in the offensive scheme takes time, too. With so many options on offense — among them receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola — getting the tight ends involved isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Bevell and James had some productive dialogue in the offseason and have some ideas about how to move forward and improve that mix.
“As far as both those guys go (Hockenson and James), I just had a conversation with Jesse and it’s my job to help those guys get more involved,” Bevell said. “The good part about the job is I have all these weapons and that’s also the bad part about the job. I mean, there’s only one ball.
“I talked to Jesse about getting Jesse more involved, but all those guys need to have opportunities to touch the ball, whether they’re the skill guys on the outside or whether it’s the easiest way handing it to those running backs.”
James came away from the talks with Bevell feeling positive and that they both got a better understanding of how to move forward productively.
“I feel good about where we’re at. Bevell and I had a couple of conversations over the offseason — constructive,” James said. “We both talked back and forth; he had a lot of good things to say and I trust we’ll some opportunities to be able to make some plays. Hopefully, at times throughout the season we’ll see that.”
Because of the injuries, it would be easy to say that there wasn’t much to be gleaned from last season and to just clear the slate and move forward.
Not so easy. The residual feeling still lingers.
“It wasn’t a great year. Toughest year I’ve had as a pro, for sure. A lot of learning, just worked as hard as you could all year and nothing ended up working out for me personally,” James said. “It’s just a part of the job and I wouldn’t change the way I approached the work week. I learned a lot, got better and I feel like I’ve improved a lot since then.”
For what it’s worth, James has impressed the coaching staff in training camp. Heading into the opener next week, the offense still is getting much of the attention and James has been working with the first team in practices.
With a healthy Stafford and the rest of the offense intact, there’s optimism that things could improve.
“I think Jesse is having a great camp right now. I think he’s working really hard, and he’s made some really great catches too,” coach Matt Patricia said. “Certainly, on our end, as coaches, (it’s important) making sure we understand our players and how do we use them to the best of their ability and put them in positions where they can hopefully make plays.
“We’re trying to just do more of that with Jesse because we know that he does have a skill set that is valuable to us. He has a big catch radius. He’s a big, tall guy. Some of the work that we did earlier in the week in the red-(zone) area, he made some really nice plays.”