During Tuesday’s Organized Team Activities, it was clear the Detroit Lions valued their tight ends. Team rules are very strict about what observations we can and cannot report, so instead of getting into specifics about what I saw, I’ll offer this paragraph from Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com to illustrate my point:
The Lions ran a goal line drill against the defense using just tight ends during Tuesday’s practice. I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before. I view that as an indication that the position will be have some prominence in the new scheme.
He’s not exaggerating there. There were four or five tight ends lined up on a play. No running backs. No wide receivers.
But what sort of increase in tight end usage can we expect for the 2019 season? “12 personnel” is the new, hot item which refers to an offensive formation with one running back and two tight ends (and likely two wide receivers). Detroit is certainly expected to go 12 personnel more than last year, when they used that formation just 15 percent of the time (20th in the league). Obviously, last year the team didn’t have the talent to warrant using that formation more often.
But now with two big investments in free agent Jesse James and first-round pick T.J. Hockenson and a brand-new offensive coordinator—Darrell Bevell—that loves to get physical and run the ball, Detroit is going to bring back the tight end position. Just take this paragraph from our friends at Field Gulls during the Bevell era:
Whether or not this is effective remains to be determined, but one method Carroll has used to try to beat this is by utilizing two tight end sets, or “12 personnel” groupings. You may remember how in 2011 the Seahawks signed Zach Miller to a long term deal with John Carlson, Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah already in tow, or the many times when we began the season with four tight ends in our roster. Just earlier this year Seattle was poised to sign Jermichael Finley when they already had Miller, McCoy, Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet on the roster.
But I think one misconception is that the Lions will be using 12 personnel the majority of the time. That’s very unlikely to be true.
If the Lions were to sport two tight ends on the field more often than not, they’d be sailing in uncharted territory in the modern era of football. Last year, the team with the highest percentage of plays in 12 personnel was the Philadelphia Eagles with 36 percent. The NFL average was just 17 percent. In 2017, the highest percentage was Baltimore with 34 percent, and the year before that it was 31 percent.
So if you’re expecting to see two tight ends on the field for the majority of the offensive snaps, scale it back a little. This is still an era of football in which the spread reigns supreme. The Lions will be using three-wide sets the majority of their offensive snaps, just like 31 of 32 teams did last year.*
That being said, even if the Lions were to make a modest jump in percentage of 12 personnel sets, it would be significant. Say Detroit went from 15 percent last year to 25 percent this year. That would be approximately 100 more plays in two-tight end sets or just over six more per game. That’s would certainly be a significant amount and a noticeable change in philosophy.
*The only exception was the 49ers, who went three wide just 39 percent of the time. Interestingly, they were still very low in 12 personnel, utilizing it just 10 percent of the time. Their “majority” formation was 21 (two running backs, one tight end), which they used 41 percent of the time.