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2020 Detroit Lions positional breakdown: Is the tight end problem fixed yet?

The Lions have a big choice to make at tight end, but it has nothing to do with personnel.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end has clearly been a priority for Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn, but his ability to properly address the problem has understandably come into question. After letting Eric Ebron go instead of honoring his fifth-year option, Quinn has scrambled to get production out of the position. Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo came and went without much of an impact.

Then in 2019, Quinn doubled his efforts. He spent wildly on former Steeler Jesse James and then pushed all his chips in by draft Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson with the eighth overall pick.

So all is better now, right? Well... let’s see.

Tight ends

(Final year under contract in parentheses)


Under contract: Jesse James (2022), T.J. Hockenson (2022), Isaac Nauta (2020), Paul Butler (2020), Matt Sokol (2020)

Free agent: Logan Thomas (unrestricted free agent)

On paper, the Lions have a good foundation of players here. Hockenson’s rookie season was ultimately disappointing, but only because he started off the year so hot. There is still plenty to be excited about there.

Jesse James, on the other hand, is looking like a big problem. His cap hit jumps another $3 million this offseason (to $5.3 million—19th among tight ends), and this is all the Lions got out of him last season: 16 catches, 142 yards.

Theoretically, James was supposed to come to Detroit to see an increased from his time in Pittsburgh, where he was mostly playing second or third fiddle. Instead, James’ statistical output was the lowest since playing half-a-season in his rookie year. Unfortunately for Detroit, they are stuck with James for at least one more year. He would actually cost the team more in 2020 cap space if they cut or traded him than if they kept him.

Isaac Nauta, the team’s seventh-round pick, saw some time late in the season, but is looking more like a developmental project.

The question here is what to do with Logan Thomas. At times, the converted quarterback looked like a legitimate threat in the receiving game, but his production, too, was few and far between. 16 catches for 173 yards and a score isn’t bad for a team’s third-string tight end, but he played in all 16 games and even started three. As an unrestricted free agent, his future with the Lions could really go either way.

Level of need: 3/10

Whether they want it or not, the Lions have their top two tight ends of 2020 already on the roster with Hockenson and James. Their focus shouldn’t really be on adding more talent to the position, but getting the most out of the player they’ve got. Quinn knows this and admitted as much, especially when it comes to the case of James.

“You know, Jesse James needs to get more involved in the offense,” Quinn admitted in his end-of-season press conference. “I think when you sign a tight end in the offseason and then you draft one in the first round, it’s kind of hard. It was kind of a hard thing for Jesse. But I know Jesse is excited about going forward with a really deep tight end room and that’s going to be a big part of our offense going forward.

They’ve already taken a significant step by firing their tight ends coach, but at the moment they don’t have a replacement. That is the most significant move this team will make this offseason when it comes to their tight ends, and that should take high priority over adding any more talent to the position.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.