James was signed early in the 2019 free agency period by then-general manager Bob Quinn and was expected to hold down the position while rookie T.J. Hockenson acclimated to the NFL. Unfortunately for James, it didn’t take long for Hockenson to pass him on the depth chart and he was demoted into a reserve role, seeing the field less than half the offensive snaps.
Two years after signing his deal, with a new front office and coaching staff in Detroit, James’ production and role didn’t match up with his contract—he was due to count $6.43 million against the cap in 2021—and GM Brad Holmes released him.
With Hockenson coming off a Pro Bowl season, the Lions were in the market for a complementary veteran tight end who excels in blocking.
Enter Josh Hill.
At 31 years old, Hill is an eight-year NFL veteran who has played primarily as a TE2 or TE3 over his career, while also chipping in at other positions like H-Back and on special teams. During his five years playing under Lions coach Dan Campbell in New Orleans, Hill excelled as a pass and run blocker, but didn’t offer much more than an occasional catch on offense—he only had eight receptions last year, though he has at least one touchdown reception in every season.
Last season, Hill’s run blocking per PFF was 72.3, fifth among tight ends who played 50 percent of the average tight end snaps—Hockenson’s grade of 70.9, placed him eighth—and he was a vital part of the Saints schematic game plan.
“We lost Josh Hill,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in 2019 after Hill was injured during a game, “and Josh is one of those guys that may be somewhat under the radar, but losing him was like losing your front door. All of a sudden there are 58 plays on the call sheet and he was involved in a lot of them, so we spent a lot of time trying to re-personnel group some of our plays — which ones we still want to run and which ones can we not run.”
Here’s a couple of clips of Hill’s effort in the Saints’ run game:
Saints TE Josh Hill working across the formation, lining up, and obliterating a DB pic.twitter.com/NXSOWzGAZY— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 7, 2019
#Saints RB Alvin Kamara needs to be buying steaks for both Erik McCoy AND Josh Hill.— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) September 29, 2020
Effort these two gave on the TD reception is next level. You wanna see what keeps Hill in the NFL so long? Man deserves all the RTs, likes, steaks, airheads and whatever else you can give him pic.twitter.com/SfzwIcvmCU
Roster outlook for 2021
With Hockenson locked in as the team's top option at tight end—or big skill, as Campbell likes to call the position—Hill will serve a complementary role, likely contributing at multiple spots.
“You don’t really see as many fullbacks,” Lions assistant head coach Duce Staley said on our podcast last Friday. “So, the spread (offense) part of it is definitely alive today. And I say that now, you do have teams that take the third tight end and he plays that full-back role.”
That could be bad news for fullback Jason Cabinda and Nick Bawden, who will need to elevate their games in order to stick around on the roster in 2021.
“When you remember those big, swole (fullbacks), those were the guys that were coming downhill on linebackers, coming downhill on safeties, maybe cutting a dude, and maybe, just maybe they caught 15 balls a year in the flat,” Staley continued. “So now here comes the hybrid tight end. Here comes the tight end. You’ve got three tight ends, 13 personnel out there. Here comes the tight end that can motion in the backfield who can do exactly what the fullback did, but this time he may slip the backer and run a corner. This time he may slip the backer and run a drag.”
With Hunter Bryant—who most definitely qualifies as a big skill—also in the mix, the Lions have three legitimate options at the position. But that doesn't mean the Lions are done adding at the position, especially with a former NFL tight end as a head coach.
If the Lions want to invest in the position, Jared Cook (another former Saints’ tight end) and Gerald Everett (Rams) are both pass-catching free agent options that the Lions could consider.
If they turn to the NFL draft, there are some mid-round options the Lions could look at: Brevin Jordan (Miami) has a skill set very similar to Everett, and Tommy Tremble (Notre Dame) is a developing inline option, while Tony Poljan (Virginia via Central Michigan) is a late-round option with upside.