One of the Detroit Lions’ biggest splash signings of this offseason was tight end Jesse James. As it stands now, James is set to take over the role of TE1 due to his ability, experience, and paycheck. James’ previous production has shown that he has the ability to be an average to below average starting tight end, more so a “1B” on the depth chart if you will. Nonetheless, James’ signing was necessary if the Lions wanted to go into the 2019 NFL Draft without tight end being a glaring need. If James were to go down though, then let’s just say the Lions would have to consider making some significant moves.
Next Man Up: Michael Roberts
The Lions drafted Michael Roberts in the fourth round of the 2017 draft based on his extreme efficiency in the red zone while at the University of Toledo with the hope that he would blossom into just as good of a tight end between the 20s.
That experiment hasn’t panned out, however. Roberts has had problems with drops and fumbles to add to his unrefined route-running ability, keeping him sidelined in favor of sub-par journeyman like Darren Fells and Levine Toilolo. Last offseason there was even talk of Roberts not making the team in his second season due to the emergence of Hakeem Valles, and Roberts’ continued his struggles into the 2018 season.
In two full seasons with the Lions, Roberts has 13 receptions for 146 yards and three touchdowns to show for. For reference, Kenny Golladay, who the Lions picked just a round before Roberts, had seven catches for 146 yards in Week 15 of last season alone.
Aside from Roberts, the only other tight end on the Lions roster is former quarterback-turned-tight-end Logan Thomas and Jerome Cunningham. Thomas, the 6-foot-7 Virginia Tech product, was on the Lions practice squad for two days in 2016. Thomas was only active for two regular season games in his first three seasons, both in his rookie year with Arizona, and has since played in 25 games over the last two seasons with the Buffalo Bills. For what it’s worth, Thomas has been just as productive as Roberts over that time, posting 19 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown.
If the Lions were to lose Jesse James for any reason, they might as well just stop using tight ends in the offense. Relying on either of their (lack of) depth to take over the role of starting tight end is worrisome to say the least.
The Lions were fortunate to land James in Detroit with a free agent class full of average to below average tight ends, and signing James the Lions eliminated the need to draft a tight end in the first day or two of the draft. It seems clear, however, that they will inevitably grab another tight end to complement James or at least be a competent backup. Some names to watch on draft weekend include Dawson Knox, Jace Sternberger, Kahale Warring, and Foster Moreau.