New Detroit Lions TEs coach sees ‘a lot of room to grow’ for James Mitchell

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions set a franchise record for touchdowns by tight ends last season, with most of that production coming after a midseason trade sent T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings.

But as productive as Brock Wright, James Mitchell and Shane Zylstra were in the second half of the season, new tight ends coach Steve Heiden sees plenty of growth ahead in 2023.

“I think in my room, or that tight end room in general, any tight end room, there’s always ways to improve,” Heiden said Wednesday. “It’s a position that you got to be, in the passing game you’ve got to go block a 300-pounder and, next play, you’ve got to go run by a safety. So there’s always things to improve on and we’ll work on that once we get in.”

Wright, Mitchell and Zylstra sit atop the depth chart at tight end with players set to report for the Lions’ formal offseason program next week.

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The Lions are expected to add to the position in the April 27-29 draft, after pursuing and missing out on Foster Moreau in free agency. Heiden, who played 11 NFL seasons at tight end with two different teams — he was taken 10 picks ahead of Lions coach Dan Campbell, another ex-tight end, in the 1999 draft — said he has some non-negotiables he looks for in the position.

“To its core, football hasn’t changed since me and Dan were playing the position,” Heiden said. “I think it’s still about physicality first and if you go to the game with that mindset and that approach, for most of the time, the rest will take care of itself. I still think you can win a bunch of games in this league just being more physical than your opponent. Now obviously as you go, you tie other things on top of that. Your technique, your fundamentals, your discipline, your approach to the game, all that, but I think it starts with physicality and I don’t think that’ll change.”

Heiden spent the past 10 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and had a hand in the Cardinals’ decision to spend a second-round pick — their first selection of the draft — on Trey McBride last spring.

This year’s tight end class is considered one of the deepest ever, and as many as three tight ends — Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Georgia’s Darnell Washington — could go in the first round.

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Last year, Hockenson led all Lions tight ends with 26 catches for 395 yards before his trade, but Wright and Zylstra caught four touchdowns each and Mitchell, a fifth-round pick who missed most of his final college season with a torn ACL, had 11 catches for 113 yards and one score.

“When that trade happened, I think these guys played really well,” Heiden said. “And you could see the growth go as the season went on. I think a lot of that credit goes to the men in the room and I think a lot of the credit goes to (last year’s tight ends coach and current pass game coordinator) Tanner (Engstrand). I think Tanner did a hell of a job with the guys and I think that needs to be said. Brock, James, Shane, they all contributed in their ways and there’s still a lot of growth for each of them. So I’m excited to have them and excited for them to get in here and start working.”

Mitchell, in particular, should see an uptick in playing time this fall after he was inactive the first three weeks of last season and did not catch his first pass until Week 8, two days before the Hockenson trade.

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Heiden said he liked Mitchell as a draft prospect and is looking forward to working with him.

“Here’s a kid that was coming off an ACL last year and that’s hard to do,” Heiden said. “I had to do that myself as a player, and you’re really not yourself that whole next year, so it was a lot of credit to him just being out there playing. The things you see on tape, you see the athletic tools and some of the things he can do movement wise, and we’re going to grow and build off of that as we go this year. So I’m excited to get him his second year off the ACL. I think that’s an important year to grow and develop. I think there’s a lot of room to grow there for him.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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