As a former NFL tight end, Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell knows how taxing the position can be on young players.
“You have to be able to run block, pass block, you got to get open in the pass game,” Campbell said last week. “That’s one element, but also there’s the mental side of it. I always make this argument: Besides the quarterback, the tight ends have to know more than anybody else offensively. You got to know it all.”
Tight end has historically been one of the toughest positions for rookies to make an impact in the NFL.
Just two rookie tight ends have topped 1,000 yards receiving in NFL history, and before Kyle Pitts hit that mark with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021, no rookie tight end had eclipsed even 800 yards since Jeremy Shockey in 2002. Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka still holds the rookie record for receiving yards at the position (1,076 yards receiving) 62 years after his NFL debut.
This year’s crop of rookie tight ends is considered one of the best ever, with nine players drafted in the first three rounds. But while expectations are muted for the group as a whole, Campbell said he believes new Lions tight end Sam LaPorta is uniquely qualified to contribute as a rookie.
“It’s one of the reasons why we drafted LaPorta, because we think he can handle a lot,” Campbell said. “We think he’s got versatility. Physically, he can do a little bit of everything, but also mentally, he’s pretty sharp for a rookie. Now, he’s got growing pains. He’s already gone the wrong way a couple of times, but that’s going to happen. But we think this guy is, that he’ll be able to pick this up pretty quick as he gets reps. So that’s why we’re pretty hopeful this kid could come on sooner than later.”
The No. 34 pick of last month’s draft and the second tight end taken (after new Buffalo Bills tight end Dalton Kincaid), LaPorta is considered more advanced as a receiver than a blocker and has a clear path to playing time in the Lions’ potent offense.
The Lions return Brock Wright, James Mitchell and Shane Zylstra from last season, but used that trio in a committee after trading T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings at midseason.
Hockenson led all Lions tight ends with 26 catches for 395 yards despite playing only seven games with the team in 2022. He, Mitchell, Wright and Zylstra combined to set a franchise positional record with 12 touchdown catches.
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LaPorta had back-to-back seasons with at least 50 catches at Iowa and could emerge as the Lions’ primary receiving weapon at the position this fall. Wright is the Lions’ top blocking tight end, while Mitchell, a fifth-round pick last season, is coming off an 11-catch rookie year.
“Hopefully I’m in a position to utilize my skill set and just do whatever the coaches ask,” LaPorta said at rookie minicamp earlier this month. “Just do it well, as best as I can.”
The Lions have invested more resources in the tight end position than any team in the NFL over the past 15 years. Including LaPorta, they’ve taken four tight ends with top-34 picks since 2009. The rest of the league has spent 10 top-34 picks on the position in that time.
Hockenson, the No. 8 pick of the 2019 draft, Eric Ebron (No. 10 in 2014) and Brandon Pettigrew (No. 20 in 2009) combined for 87 catches, 961 yards and five touchdowns as rookies.
None played in as dynamic an offense as the one the Lions expect to field this fall, though LaPorta will have to compete with Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jahmyr Gibbs, , Marvin Jones, Kalif Raymond, Josh Reynolds and, eventually, Jameson Williams for targets.
LaPorta, who had a strong rookie minicamp, worked primarily with the second-team offense at organized team activities last week. He said mastering the small details is his focus for now as he works to get in a position to contribute on the field.
“I’m learning all the real intricate details of the system right now,” he said. “Of course, I’ve messed them up a couple times already. You’ve probably heard them yelling at me, so those details are really what separates you apart in the National Football League. They were great last year and I hope I can contribute a lot this year on offense.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.