With only a handful of pass catchers on the roster, the Detroit Lions are going to be in the market to add several talented skill players. While most assume that means signing or drafting wide receivers, it’s important to not overlook the value of adding a “big skill” player at tight end.
Lions’ coach Dan Campbell spoke to the media this week about the evolution of the role of tight end in the current NFL and how far it has come since his days playing the position.
“It’s just totally different now,” Campbell said. “You’re looking at the athlete. You want to see can this guy run. How does he move? How’s his reaction time? Just working ball drills, hand mechanics, all those things.
“So, look, it’s definitely changed and to me, I don’t even want to use the word–it is tight end, but yet, man, I call it big skill. It’s a big skill position and so most of the time tight ends fall into that, but just because you’re a big skill that’s played tight end somewhere doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a traditional tight end.”
Traditional tight ends are players, like Campbell back in his playing days, who focused on blocking first and receiving second. That skill set mix has been devalued as the game has morphed into a passing league, and the position now favors players who can catch first and block second—if they need to at all.
“I mean,” Campbell continued, “if you look at what we (Saints) did with Jared Cook last year, he really didn’t have his hand in the ground very much at all. He was used more as a slot and then we’d split him out, getting him isolated, see if they’d play man-to-man. So, when you have a guy like that, or you have weapons like that, these guys can be used a little bit more like receivers if you will, but yet knowing that there’s going to be those times where they’re still going to need to be able to block and help you in the run game.”
The Lions have one of the better big skill options in the NFL in T.J. Hockenson, who wins with balance, can line up inline, or shift out in the slot, making him a very valuable asset. Campbell’s approach to the position surely favors Hockenson’s skill set, and he could be poised up to take his game to yet another level.
Beyond Hockenson, the Lions’ second option at the position is Jesse James, who quite plainly has fallen short of the expectations associated with his contract. It’s no surprise he is being speculated as a potential cap casualty this offseason. It’s possible Campbell could breathe life back into James’ career, but for a cash-strapped organization, keeping a blocking tight end on the roster with a $6.5 million price tag is a tough sell.
The Lions’ third option is the electric Hunter Bryant, an undrafted rookie out of Washington last season. Bryant definitely fits the mold of a modern-day big skill, as he is a mismatch option in the slot, but his lack of blocking experience could hold him back from securing the No. 2 tight end role on the team.
Hockenson and Bryant give the Lions weapons at the position, but if they move on from James, they could be in the market for another big skill option.
If the Lions were looking to fill the hole in free agency, logic says they would first look at the Saints’ potential free agents at tight end since Campbell was coaching them just over a month ago. Jared Cook—who also has ties to general manager Brad Holmes— and Josh Hill were just released early by the Saints ahead of free agency. Also, former-Lion Cole Wick signed with the Saints at the end of 2019 but opted out of the 2020 season.
If the Lions decide to add a big skill through the draft, there is an elite option in Florida’s Kyle Pitts who could potentially be there at pick No. 7.
Yes, a large portion of the Lions fan base would lose their minds if the team drafted two tight ends in the top-10 in the last three years, but Pitts very much fits the big skill mold and the Lions are in a position to go several directions with their pass catchers. There’s room for two elite big skill options if they want to go in that direction.
At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Pitts athleticism, in-play movement, and reliable hands make him a nightmare for defenses. Don’t be fooled by the tight end label, he’s more than that. Don’t get caught thinking he’s a wide receiver, he’s more than that too.
Regardless of whether you consider him a wide receiver or a tight end, Kyle Pitts is a cheat code either way. What an incredible season he had in 2020. pic.twitter.com/RWPwfM2sEZ— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) February 16, 2021
Florida TE Kyle Pitts in 2020: 66 targets, 43 catches, *zero* drops. pic.twitter.com/Fuhn1XuqSv— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 21, 2021
Some Day 2 options include Pat Freiermuth (Penn State) and Brevin Jordan (Miami). Jordan in particular is very similar to potential free agent Gerald Everett of the Rams, another 6-foot-3 big skill player that Holmes helped scout. A Day 3 sleeper to keep an eye on is East Lansing’s Tony Poljan (Virginia via Central Michigan) who is a balanced player that is still developing at the position after spending time at quarterback early in his college career.
With Campbell’s background and a potential depth need at tight end, the Lions will likely add at least one big skill this offseason. Who and when they decide to add a player is still unknown, but at this stage, no one should be ruled out.