On Tuesday, just hours before the deadline, the Detroit Lions traded T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings, upgrading a Day 3 pick into a Day 2 pick in each of the next two NFL Draft cycles. Jeremy Reisman and I broke down the deal in an impromptu podcast after the deal was announced.
There are several reasons the Lions likely made this deal. Hockenson was set to cost $9.4 million (fully guaranteed) in 2023, a significant amount for a team that has been trying to dig out of the financial burden left by the previous regime. In 2024, Hockenson is set to be a free agent, and at a projected $13-15 million per year salary on the table, there was no guarantee he would be retained. Therefore, with his future uncertain, the upgraded picks are solid compensation, turning picks typically considered a coin flip to succeed in the NFL, into a higher picks with better odds.
Replacing Hockenson in the short term
The Lions can go several directions in replacing Hockenson in the future, but for now, with the trade deadline passed, they will be limited in their options, likely looking internally for players to step up.
Currently, the Lions have two tight ends on their active roster, Brock Wright and James Mitchell, and two more on their practice squad, Shane Zylstra and Garrett Griffin. Superback Jason Cabinda is also still on the roster, but remains on the reserve/PUP list for time being—though coach Dan Campbell has suggested he is close to returning.
Redistribution of snap counts
Before this move, Hockenson was playing roughly 85% of the Lions offensive snaps, while Wright saw around 40% and Mitchell got about 5%. Zylstra, who originally made the 53-man roster and played in Week 1, has 16 offensive snaps under his belt. While Griffin and Cabinda have yet to see the field on game day this season.
So how will the Lions redistribute their tight end snaps?
Well, if we look back to last season, when Hockenson landed on injured reserve late in the season, it could give us some indication. At that time, Hockenson was playing roughly the same amount of snaps as he was this year, while Wright’s were just a tick lower. When Hockenson went down, Wright’s snaps increased to about 75%, which is lower than Hockenson’s numbers but nearly double his own numbers. I’d expect that to repeat itself.
So with Wright projected to step into the TE1 role and play on roughly 75% of snaps, that leaves the left over 10% from Hockenson’s absence plus Wright’s 40%, and Mitchell’s 5% up for grabs.
Ideally, those opportunities would go straight to the rookie, and Mitchell would see his snap counts increase from 5 to 55% percent. But that might not be realistic, as it’s a pretty significant leap. So lets be moderate and only bump him up to the number the Lions have been deploying their TE2 at and increase Mitchell to 40%.
That leaves around 15% of offensive snaps previously attached to the tight end group up for distribution. It’s possible the Lions simply hand that over to their new TE3 (we’ll get to that in a minute) or possibly fold that into another position group or maybe a bit of both. And if I had to guess, I’d bet on the latter.
So who might be the Lions new TE3?
The most logical assumption is for the Lions to sign or elevate Zylstra to the active roster. He was their choice for the role last season and he made the initial 53-man roster, so those ducks line up.
But the wildcard is Cabinda.
If Cabinda is indeed close to returning to the roster, the Lions may choose to get tricky with their roster elevations and stay fluid. One thing they may consider is elevating Zylstra from the practice squad on game days—which they can do three times a season—instead of signing him to the active roster as a way of avoiding having to subject him to waivers, while also freeing up a spot on the roster. Of course, this only works if Cabinda is ready to return before the elevations run out.
Either way, Zylstra is the likely TE3 for the next few games.
Projection summary for the TL;DR crowd:
- Wright projects to the TE1 role and an increase in his snaps counts up to around 75%
- Mitchell to TE2 and an increase from 5% to 40% in his new role
- Zylstra to TE3 and will get 15% or less snaps
- When Cabinda is ready to return, he could take over Zylstra’s role
After the conclusion of this season, there are 7-10 potential free agents who currently play over half their teams offensive snaps, and another 7-10 potential draft picks who look like solid prospects. All of them could be in play for the Lions, but the smart money is on the Lions investing in youth at the position.
So far this season, I have only profiled two tight ends in my Lions draft watchlist—Michael Mayer (Notre Dame) and Luke Schoonmaker (Michigan)—but there will be several others on the agenda for the coming weeks.