The Detroit Lions obviously invested heavily in the tight end position this offseason. First, they shelled out $25 million over four years for Jesse James. Then they spent their highest draft pick in six years on Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Part of the reason general manager Bob Quinn hit the position so hard was likely because of last year’s failure to get any sort of production at the position after failing to address it after cutting Eric Ebron. However, it’s also clear Quinn is excited about the possibility of playing more 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends)—something they did just 15 percent of the time last year (t-18th).
“Probably work a lot of 12-personnel,” Quinn said the night after drafting Hockenson. “I think that’s something that our offense can really work through and I think we can be very multiple.”
But what are the advantages of shifting to a more tight-end heavy system? We’ve seen the increase of spread offenses that typically utilize three-wide sets over two tight ends in the past few years. Moving to a more bulkier formation is bucking the current trends of offensive growth.
According to James, that may have to do more with personnel than it does strategy.
“There are not a lot of teams in the NFL that have a solid two-tight end unit that they can go out there and run any part of their offense,” James said.
The Lions may very well have that. Though James has yet to really break out as a top-tier talent—his best statistical season was last year with a 30-catch, 423-yard season—he’s still extremely young (24) and has the physical tools to be a versatile piece to the offense. Adding Hockenson on the field at the same could be a dangerous threat to defenses according to James.
“It’s a huge advantage if you have two guys you’re confident in,” James said. “You throw out there and be able to run stuff you’d run out of just a one-tight end set. If you have two guys that can go out there and catch the ball, you can stretch the defense a little different than most teams do.”
Lions left tackle Taylor Decker sees a different advantage in bringing in an extra tight end: Adding some bulk and toughness to the team’s identity.
“I think it tries to establish a level of physicality in the game,” Decker said. “I think we will have a better feel of what that will look like, like I said, once we get on the field. Bigger guys, more running backs on the field, I think that just tries to set the tone of a physical football team.”
Will it all come together this year? There are a lot of factors that suggest it may take some time. Rookie tight ends tend to take a little time to adjust to life in the NFL, even ones coming from a program like Iowa, which prepares their tight ends to be the two-way player necessary in the big leagues. Additionally, everyone on offense is learning a new system with new terminology under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
But if everything can come together, the Lions may have one of the most unique offensive attacks in the league.