It isn’t the most exciting position battle, but the competition for the third tight end spot could be a close one.
The Detroit Lions tight end group underwent some notable changes this offseason. Jesse James was released with little fanfare after an extremely disappointing two seasons. Having played over 400 snaps in 2020, the backup role behind star T.J. Hockenson was slated to be a valuable position to fill. Head coach Dan Campbell, ironically a former tight end, was hired from his position as tight ends coach with the Saints, and he brought along Josh Hill. However, Hill opted for retirement instead. The Lions were quick on their feet and brought in former Lion Darren Fells in his stead. Although 35 years old, Fells figures to slot in well as a pass catcher and run blocker.
However, what happens behind him?
The Lions have recently carried three tight ends on the roster. The Lions did not draft a tight end in the 2021 NFL Draft, and have not brought in another other notable free agents. Last year, the third tight end spot was inconsistent, with Isaac Nauta and Hunter Bryant splitting time. Bryant returned from injury in early December, while Nauta was waived a few days later. The third tight end is good for around 100 snaps on offense assuming no injuries occur, so while it is a small role, it could still be a valuable one, especially for a team coached by a former tight end. Special teams will also be an important factor.
The current tight end group is anything but certain. Hunter Bryant returns, but he is on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list, so he could miss a sizeable chunk of the 2021 season. Although he has potential as a pass catching tight end—his lone catch in 2020 turned into a 44-yard reception—the injury bug has plagued him so far in his career, and he might not be a reliable option going forward.
Of the remaining tight ends, Alizé Mack has perhaps the best chance of winning a roster spot. Mack is the most experienced of the group, but given his zero career receptions, that speaks to how inexperienced the tight ends are. Mack’s edge comes from familiarity with Dan Campbell, having been drafted by the Saints in 2019. However, it was a short stint, as he was waived in September of that year. Like Bryant, he is a better receiver than blocker, but might have to showcase a more rounded game to make the team.
Jake Hausmann and Brock Wright were signed as undrafted free agents this year, but their impact in college was anything but prolific. Hausmann caught three passes while at Ohio State, more so contributing as a blocker and special teamer. Wright caught seven passes at Notre Dame, but also played fullback on occasion.
Hunter Thedford had a similar lackluster stat line from college, totaling just five catches, but at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, the one-time defensive end could be a physical force on offense—a move to offensive tackle might even be a possibility. The Lions recently converted Matt Nelson from defensive end to offensive tackle to decent success, so Thedford’s blocking abilities might garner the attention of offensive line coach Hank Fraley. Even if he stays at tight end, he could be a red zone threat—the Lions once saw plenty of success with a similarly sized Joseph Fauria.
Rounding out the group is Charlie Taumoepeau, a recent signee from the Lions’ rookie mini-camp. The tryout was a success for the 2020 undrafted free agent, who bounced around on three teams last year. The former Portland State Viking was a solid pass catcher in college, and while he might not have the athleticism or size to stand out in the NFL, he could slot in very well as a third tight end that can contribute as a blocker too. His potential as a h-back could help his cause as well.
Today’s Question of the Day is:
Who will be the Lions’ third tight end?
My answer: I think Taumoepeau will be the third tight end.
This might seem bold given that he was just in camp on a tryout basis, but he clearly impressed the coaching staff enough to get signed, and with no real frontrunners for the position, those early impressions could be extremely valuable for Taumoepeau.
While having a pure receiving threat like Bryant or Mack can be an asset, I think this coaching staff will lean towards having a more well-rounded TE3, and Taumoepeau fits the bill. He totaled over 1,800 receiving yards at Portland State, and while the level of competition during his career was certainly lower, it shows he does have some prowess as a pass catcher.
I think his ability to play the h-back role is crucial as well. Neither Nick Bawden nor Jason Cabinda are locks to make the roster at fullback, and the Lions could save a roster spot by having Taumoepeau on the roster as a tight end and fullback. The Lions did something similar with Isaac Nauta in 2019 when Bawden suffered an injury. Cabinda himself was a converted linebacker, so the Lions have been making due with out of position players.
I will be excited to watch the tight end group this training camp. Can Hockenson match his Pro Bowl season? How will Fells play in his return to Detroit? But perhaps the closest battle to watch will be for that third tight end spot.