With training camp on the horizon for the Detroit Lions, we continue to roll out our roster battle series, where we preview each position group, identify starters and role players, as well as discuss those players fighting for a job.
So far we have addressed quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, and today we will close out the offensive skill players with a closer look at the tight end competition. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, make sure you find the time to check them out:
Setting the table
The Lions entered the 2022 offseason with only Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson under contract but quickly moved to re-sign Brock Wright (ERFA) and Shane Zylstra (futures deal), as well as adding Garrett Griffin via free agency. Next, they drafted James Mitchell in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, while also adding undrafted free agents (UDFA) Derek Deese Jr. and Nolan Given post-draft.
This is the group they entered spring camp with, but with injuries to several tight ends, the Lions made one more move before the final day of OTAs: signing Devin Funchess and converting him back to tight end, a role he thrived in at the University of Michigan before switching to wide receiver.
The Lions had trouble keeping tight ends on the active roster in 2021 (Josh Hill retired, Darren Fells asked to be released, and Hockenson landed on injured reserve) and it led to a varied amount of tight ends on the 53-man roster at any given time. This also opened the door for superback Jason Cabinda and sixth offensive lineman Matt Nelson to expand their blocking roles.
Despite the fluctuation last season, and the eight players currently rostered at the position, it is presumed that the Lions would prefer to keep three tight ends on the active roster.
With that being said, the Lions also retained Cabinda and Nelson this offseason, and if the tight end group can’t get/stay healthy, this could also be a position the Lions wouldn’t hesitate to go lighter at if the players aren’t ready to contribute.
There is no battle for a starting job with Hockenson locked into that role, but beyond him, the remaining spots appear up for grabs.
Brock Wright started 2021 on the practice squad, was promoted to the game-day roster in Weeks 7 and 8, then signed to the active roster during the bye week (9) to replace the departed Darren Fells, and was named the starter in Week 14 after Hockenson landed on injured reserve.
Here’s what tight ends coach Tanner Engstrand had to say about Wright’s rookie season:
“Last year, I mean, he kinda came into OTAs, nobody really knew much about him and shoot, he starts, what like the last eight (technically six) games on the year or something like that. And he did a heck of a job. It’s a credit to him just really of his hard work and really his ability to absorb information and be a coachable kid. He’s just done a phenomenal job for us.”
At this stage of the offseason, Wright looks to be the frontrunner for the Lions’ TE2 position but he will face competition in camp and will need to improve his blocking—something he did well at Notre Dame—in order to hold onto the role.
James Mitchell likely would have gone much higher in the draft had he not suffered an ACL injury early in his final year at Virginia Tech. He missed the spring while recovering but is expected to be close to fully recovered by camp and should be in the mix for the TE2 job.
Here’s Engstrand on what he has seen so far from Mitchell:
“I can’t say enough good things about James, so far. He’s done a phenomenal job of what we’ve asked him to do. And really that’s in rehab and in the classroom, so he takes it upon himself and he’s doing a really nice job of learning the offense in a couple different areas… You go back and watch his tape and shoot man, the guy just averages a ton of yards per catch in college. So he’s shown some of those abilities and he’s shown the agility to block on the perimeter or run in some different zone scheme type of plays and be effective in the run game too. We’re excited to get him out here in training camp and see what he’s got.”
Mitchell’s health and acclimation to the NFL game will likely dictate his role this fall but he seems to have an easy path to the roster based on his upside—even if it’s only a TE3 role to begin the season.
Shane Zylstra was promoted to the roster four times last season, one in the standard format and three times as a COVID replacement. He was injured in Week 15, but has recovered and showed off the fact that he was a former wide receiver with some nice plays this spring.
Here’s Engstrand on Zylstra’s spring:
“I think his resiliency… he has done a terrific job in his rehab to get himself into a position to be able to be out here and really participate 100% in what we’ve been doing. And again, he just works hard. He’s really trying to prove himself and he’s playing much faster right now than he was last year. Just understanding his role, the jobs, and the details of the things that we’re asking him to do. It’s enabling him to, I guess show his skillset as we’ve seen a little bit in some of these red-zone periods and such. I think that’s something he’s done a really nice job at.”
Zylstra’s blocking is still a work in progress, but his pass-catching prowess can work in a TE3 role while he develops. If Mitchell isn’t ready, and he can hold off the competition behind him, Zylstra could be a sleeper for the roster.
Devin Funchess figures to be the biggest challenger to Zylstra. He’s only had one practice in a Lions uniform, hasn’t played a regular season NFL game since 2019, and is converting from wide receiver, but he is a highly talented pass catcher when motivated. He’s going to get a lot of hype as a local player who flashed dominance in college, but we’ll need to see more of him in his new role before he is considered a legit contender.
Garrett Griffin is an H-back/inline tight end who has a history working with coach Dan Campbell in New Orleans. He missed some practices this spring and failed to stand out, which isn’t surprising as his attributes likely won’t be noticeable until pads come on in the fall. Another sleeper for the roster if Mitchell isn’t ready and coaches want more of a blocker than pass catcher.
Derek Deese Jr.—who missed most, if not all of the spring—and Nolan Givan are this year’s UDFAs and are still working their way through the acclimation process. It’d be easy to rule them out at this stage, but as we saw with Wright last offseason, it’s all about seizing an opportunity.
Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Hockenson, Wright, and Mitchell.
So Jeremy, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Were we too quick to dismiss Devin Funchess or is he getting as much love as he is because he went to Michigan and is a “name” athlete?
Jeremy: Because there’s so much uncertainty at the position, he’s going to be given a fair shot to win a roster spot, but it’s hard to have much confidence in a former second-round pick who has walked a line very close to “bust” territory and will be asking to play a position he hasn’t in nearly a decade. Detroit had success stories with former “busts” (Charles Harris) and position changes (Godwin Igwebuike), so I’m certainly not going to count him out completely. But let us not forget that Breshad Perriman didn’t exactly work out. Career revitalizations aren’t easy or very common.
My biggest concern with this group right now is that there isn’t a player that has clearly shown an above-average ability to block. Does that maybe give Garrett Griffin a leg up on the competition, simply because he’s held a role like that (with mixed results) longer than anyone else?
Erik: I wouldn’t say he has too much of an advantage because, as you said, inconsistent results, but the Lions do need someone to step up, so that could certainly play into his favor. At the end of the day, while he is a capable pass and run blocker, both skills are just average.
What we don’t know is what the Lions might be looking for in a blocker. Would they be willing to rotate players who are situationally better or look for a balanced blocker who has a lower skill set? For example, Hockenson and Mitchell might be better pass blockers than Griffin, and Wright might be a better run blocker, but none of them is as balanced a blocker as Griffin.
In my opinion, I think the coaching staff is simply going to keep the most talented tight ends they can find and play them in situations that best fit their skill set.
Jeremy: And we won’t know who those players are until the pads come on in a couple weeks.