Much like the offensive line, tight end has been a position the Lions have spent a ton of resources on, but just haven’t been able to figure out. While the Lions were close with a guy like Eric Ebron—who occasionally showed flashes of being a top-10 tight end—they’ve really struggled to find anyone since sending him packing. Levine Toilolo, Luke Willson, Michael Roberts, Hakeem Valles, and Darren Fells all either couldn’t cut it or didn’t stay around long.
So Lions general manager Bob Quinn went on a mission last offseason. Not only did he decide to spend the eighth-overall pick on T.J. Hockenson, but he went out and spent a ton of money on who was perceived to be the best free agent available. While the committee is still out on both decisions, one looks to have promise, and the other looks like it may have been a potentially big mistake.
Jesse James is the No. 1 player on our list of worst 2020 cap hits for the Detroit Lions.
Reminder: This list is only based on 2020 cap hits, not the entirety of the contract.
1. Jesse James
2020 cap hit: $5.3M
2020 cap hit ranking: 15th among tight ends
The Lions inked James to a hefty four-year, $22 million contract and it was immediately met with some skepticism. James had mostly spent his time as the No. 2 or 3 tight end in Pittsburgh, and his production was modest, at best. After the Lions drafted Hockenson a month later, the move looked even more head-scratching. By July, some were already speculating that the Lions would regret that signing.
The skeptics may have been onto something. James’ first season with the Lions was just about as unproductive as they get. As a receiver, he was only contributed 16 catches for 142 yards. As a blocker, he was one of the worst-graded by PFF standards, earning a 55.9 grade in the passing game and a 54.6 grade as a run blocker. By just about any measure, this was the most unproductive season of James’ career since his rookie season.
At a $2.3 million cap hit, James’ play was disappointing, but not particularly costly. That’s about to change. His cap number more than doubles this year, and it only gets worse from there. He’ll take up $6.4 million in 2021 and $7.2 million in 2022, though there’s a fairly easy out for Detroit after the 2021 season.
There are some reasons for optimism going forward with James. Quinn has specifically mentioned that they plan on getting him more involved in the offense in 2020, and they must have meant it, because they didn’t bring in any true competition to take the TE2 role away from him.
“Jesse James needs to get more involved in the offense,” Quinn said at the end of the 2019 season. “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.”
2019 also appeared to be a bit out of the norm for James. In the previous three seasons, James slowly increased his offensive production from 338 receiving yards to 372 to 423. Perhaps a year of adjusting to a new offense and learning new terminology is all James needed to get his feet set. Having a healthy Matthew Stafford could help, too.
Still, Darrell Bevell offenses don’t really have a history of using a tight end a ton, and the Lions have plenty of other receiving options on the team, including three highly-productive receivers, a tight end that could be in for a top-10 season and a couple of pass-catching running backs.
Even if James’ game takes a step and the Lions make him a bigger part of his offense, it’s hard to see his production raise to the level that would make his contract seem like good value. Here’s a look at some tight ends not on rookie deals that will take less of a cap hit than James in 2020: Austin Hooper, Darren Fells, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, Tyler Eifert, Levine Toilolo, Logan Thomas. Enough said.
Top 5 Detroit Lions worst salary cap hits for 2020: