| The Detroit News
Professional sports are always evolving. In baseball, we’re in the era of launch angles, exit velocity and spin rate. In basketball, the traditional low-post center has been phased out in favor of more corner 3-pointers. And in football, pass-happy offenses have decreased the importance of featured running backs and base defenses.
Another position swept up in football’s evolution has been tight end. Twenty years ago, it was a block-first position, but as college offenses became more and more spread out, blocking took a backseat to pass-catching. Eventually, both those offensive schemes and altered skill sets have worked their way to the pro ranks.
Hall of Famer Mike Ditka averaged a little more than 35 catches and 484 yards per season during his 12-year career. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, the position’s gold standard these days, has averaged 87 grabs and 1,126 yards the past seven seasons.
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell has witnessed the shift up close. As a player, he was cut more from the Ditka mold, a mauling blocker who was a secondary option in the passing attack. But as a coach, he’s worked with the new-age type of tight end, such as Jared Cook in New Orleans last season.
“I mean, when I played, I remember when I first came in the workout — I mean, about an hour in you might get to some ball drills,” Campbell said, reflecting on his 10-year playing career. “It was you line up, (get in) your stance and you’re hitting bags, and you’re hitting sleds, and they’re running you through, you’re going to find out if you’re going to quit or not.
“It’s just totally different now,” Campbell continued. “You’re looking at the athlete. You want to see can this guy run. How does he move? How’s his reaction time? Just working ball drills, hand mechanics, all those things. So, look, it’s definitely changed and to me I don’t even want to use the word — it is tight end, but yet, man, I call it big skill. It’s a big skill position and so most of the time tight ends fall into that, but just because you’re a big skill that’s played tight end somewhere doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a traditional tight end. If you look at what we did with Jared Cook last year, he really didn’t have his hand in the ground very much at all. He was used more as a slot and then we’d split him out, getting him isolated, see if they’d play man-to-man.”
In Detroit, Campbell will get his hands on an up-and-coming Pro Bowler in T.J. Hockenson. Unlike many of his peers, he established a reputation as both a quality pass-catcher and blocker coming out of the University of Iowa in 2019. That rare dual-threat ability as a prospect led to the Lions making an equally rare decision to use a top-10 pick on a tight end.
Hockenson’s skill set explains why he lined up off-tackle 63.6% of his snaps last season, compared to Cook, who checked in at 36.5%. Regardless, both fit Campbell’s description of “big skill.”
“When you have a guy like that, or you have weapons like that, these guys can be used a little bit more like receivers if you will, yet knowing that there’s going to be those times where they’re still going to need to be able to block and help you in the run game,” Campbell said. “Look, it’s definitely changed, but I think big skill is hard to find if I’m being honest with you, and I think it’s a hard matchup for defenses. When you have a guy that you feel like can win his one-on-ones, I don’t care what he plays, those guys are intriguing, man. When you have guys on your roster that you know the defense is like spending extra time on all week, that’s who they’re worried about, those guys, that’s kind of the type of guys you’re looking for.”
In Hockenson, Campbell clearly has that type of guy, but heading into the draft, it begs the question, is their room for another on the roster? It’s worth asking because there’s a chance the Lions will have an opportunity to draft Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who while a willing blocker, is far more lethal as a pass-catching threat and might legitimately be the best player available when Detroit is on the clock.
Lions fans likely will squirm at the idea of drafting a third tight end in the top 10 of the draft in recent years, but does perception change if Pitts is viewed more as a receiver, primarily operating out of the slot and out wide, with the added benefit of being able to block when needed?
He certainly fits Campbell’s description. Difficult matchup? New Jaguars coach Urban Meyer called Pitts a “matchup nightmare.” Ability to win one-on-one? Pro Football Focus data showed he was the third-most productive pass-catcher against man coverage last season, blowing away other players at his position. And at 6-foot-5, there’s no question Pitts is big.
It also seems worth noting that Pitts didn’t drop a pass last season, catching 43 balls for 770 yards and 12 scores in eight games for the Gators.
There are still nearly two months before the draft, and the Lions have free agency to worry about first, but Campbell’s glowing words about “big skill” seemingly put Pitts on the Lions’ radar, even with Hockenson in the fold.
With the team’s wide receiver corps on the verge of a full overhaul, Pitts paired with Hockenson offers a different way to envision the impending overhaul.