The Detroit Lions’ plan at tight end did not pan out in 2021.
Under new head coach and former tight end Dan Campbell, there was optimism about T.J. Hockenson repeating his Pro Bowl year, perhaps taking the next step into elite territory. Former New Orleans Saint Josh Hill was expected to be the reliable veteran blocker. Add in Hunter Bryant as a player on the rise, and the tight end group looked decent.
Unfortunately, everything went poorly. Josh Hill retired before the season, and his replacement Darren Fells requested his release a few months into the campaign. Bryant was injured in early April and never touched the field. Undrafted rookie Brock Wright had his moments, but his roster spot remains in flux. As for the star of the group, Hockenson played 12 games to the tune of just 583 yards. With a contract decision looming, the Lions are hoping for a better 2022 season.
There are many directions the Lions could go in free agency. They could target a pass catcher to fulfill the role of TE2 and act as insurance for Hockenson. They could target a veteran blocker to occupy the role they had once planned for Hill. They could target a young player with potential. While there aren’t any elite tight ends on the market, the Lions would do well to add one this offseason.
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Among the biggest tight end free agents, Gerald Everett’s first year with the Seattle Seahawks was fairly lackluster. He did post a career-high 478 yards, but for a former second-round pick, it has been a slow start to his career. While he has evolved as a blocker, he has yet to hit his full potential as a receiver.
However, the Lions will certainly be interested in Everett. Not only is he a decent tight end still under the age of 30, but he has a connection to Brad Holmes. Everett was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, a front office that featured Holmes. Everett signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Seattle in free agency, and he would likely command a similar contract again in 2022. If the Lions are willing to shell out a bit for an upgrade at TE2, Everett is a top option.
Sticking with the Rams connection, Johnny Mundt is an unknown name to many. Mundt served as the Rams’ backup tight end in 2021 behind Tyler Higbee, but suffered a torn ACL in October. Mundt has just 93 receiving yards to his name, but his role on offense is primarily as a blocker. Mundt played just 102 snaps due to injury, but he graded as one of the better run blocking tight ends last season. Mundt is in a similar vein to Josh Hill, so don’t be surprised if his name pops up come free agency. Blocking tight ends aren’t sexy, but they play a vital and underappreciated role.
Much like Gerald Everett, Maxx Williams is a former second-round pick that never developed into a true starting-caliber tight end. While Everett put together some decent campaigns, Williams had never topped 300 yards in a season. He was largely relegated to a blocking role during his time with the Ravens and Cardinals.
But the 2021 season started with a bang. Williams had a 94-yard and 66-yard performance through his first four games with the Cardinals, and it looked like Williams might finally put together a decent receiving season. Unfortunately, Williams tore his ACL in Week 5, ending his bright start to the year.
The injury may provide a discount for Detroit, but he should be healthy for the start of next season. At worst, Williams is a capable blocker to pair with Hockenson. If he regains his receiving form, then Williams could be another successful reclamation project for Brad Holmes.
Speaking of reclamation projects, O.J. Howard was expected to be the next superstar tight end. A great athlete with receiving and blocking skills to boot, Howard was selected 18th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yet despite the promise, Howard has failed to live up to those lofty expectations. With 585 receiving yards in his second season, it looked like Howard was on the cusp of breaking out. Instead, injuries began to plague him.
Achilles and ankle injuries prevented Howard from playing 16 games early in his career. 2021 was his first full season, but it also came with a severely reduced role. Howard hasn’t been a successful blocker either, which further limited his snaps. If the Lions want to take a chance on a talented player, Howard could be a target. He doesn’t have the blocking skill of other free agents, but the upside is massive.
Another Seahawks tight end makes the list. Will Dissly made an immediate impact as a rookie, recording 105 yards and a touchdown in his debut. Despite that early promise, Dissly has rarely recaptured that form. Dissly finished his first two season on the Injured Reserve, becoming an afterthought in the ensuing years. Instead, Dissly settled into a blocking role in the Seattle offense.
Dissly could be a player Dan Campbell falls in love with. He is a tough and talented blocker and could slot in excellently as the Lions’ TE2. The Lions utilized a sixth offensive tackle quite often in 2021 due to their blocking struggles, so signing Dissly could help alleviate those woes. Thanks to Hockenson stealing the spotlight, Dissly could have a bounce back season as a receiver too.