Allen Park — T.J. Hockenson was on his way to a potential Pro Bowl season last year, but that was before he went down with a thumb injury and missed the final five games of the campaign.
The 6-foot-5 tight end was catching 72.6% of his targets and was on pace to have over 800 receiving yards, which would’ve been a career-best mark.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t meant to be, and the Lions had to turn to a couple of undrafted tight ends in Shane Zylstra and Brock Wright, out of Minnesota State and Notre Dame, respectively, down the stretch last season.
Hockenson is back and primed to have a big season, but Zylstra and Wright being forced onto the field last season now gives the Lions two experienced pieces of depth behind their star and a potential to give opposing defenses a variety of different looks.
“When you can play with multiple tight ends on the field, it really kind of puts the stress on the defense,” tight ends coach Tanner Engstrand said last month. “Especially if you have guys that can flex into different areas, per se. Maybe where you can get (the opponent) into a nickel defense and we’ve got 12 personnel or two tight ends on the field, maybe we can take advantage of the defense in a certain way that way.
“If they were in say, a base defense, and maybe we have a really good pass-catching tight end such as T.J., (then) we can go ahead and attack a defense that way and just create those matchups that we want when those guys are on the field.”
Zylstra’s time filling in for Hockenson was cut short, though, as he was rolled up on from behind when blocking on a run play against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.
He was carted off the field and later diagnosed with a fractured kneecap, which knocked him out for the rest of the season.
In the two games prior to the injury, he played a total of 69 offensive snaps. He was up to 13 against the Falcons before going down.
“I don’t like to watch the clip. It is gross,” Engstrand said, recalling the play where Zylstra got hurt. “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.
“(He’s) 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 skill set 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.”
As for Wright, he bore a bit more responsibility when filling in for Hockenson, even before Zylstra’s injury.
Wright caught more passes in his first NFL season than he did in three years with the Fighting Irish, as he finished with 12 receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
“(Wright) kind of came into OTAs last year (and) nobody really knew much about him and shoot, he starts (some games last season)…and he did a heck of a job,” Engstrand said. “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.”
The Lions also addressed the tight end position in the draft, selecting Virginia Tech’s James Mitchell in the fifth round.
Mitchell played in 22 games during his time with the Hokies, catching 52 passes for 838 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 16.1 yards per reception in college and rushed for an additional five touchdowns on just seven attempts.
Mitchell was sidelined for OTAs due to a torn ACL he suffered in 2021, but he is expected to participate in training camp.
“I can’t say enough good things about James so far,” Engstrand said. “He’s done a phenomenal job in what we’ve asked him to do, and really that’s in rehab and in the classroom. He takes it upon himself and he’s doing a really nice job of learning the offense in a couple different areas. Just trying not to fall behind mentally, which can be easy when you’re not getting those physical reps.
“So, he’s doing a really nice job. You go back and watch his tape and shoot, man, the guy just averages a ton of yards per catch in college. He’s shown some of those abilities and he’s shown the ability 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.”