The Detroit Lions only drafted two offensive players in the 2022 NFL draft, trading up in the first round for Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams, and landing Virginia Tech tight end James Mitchell with pick No. 177 in the fifth round.
Mitchell was a three-year starter for the Hokies, earning team captain honors as a redshirt junior, which was, unfortunately, cut short due to an ACL injury in September. Despite recovering from the injury, Mitchell bypassed his final year of eligibility and declared for the NFL draft. If not injured, Mitchell would have likely gone late in the third round or early in the fourth.
At 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, Mitchell has an NFL frame for the tight end position, but his game goes beyond traditional responsibilities, which made him a very appealing option for the Lions. At Virginia Tech, Mitchell split his time between working inline (TE-Y) and in the slot (TE-F), but also has previously shown that he has the athleticism and skills to contribute as an H-back. Virginia Tech’s sporadic offense led to an unimpressive box score, making his draft profile a good case for identifying a player's traits over production.
“I would say I’m just a very diverse player,” Mitchell told the Lions media. “At Virginia Tech I was used all over the field. I became a better blocker as the years went on at Tech, but I pride myself on being able to play all over the field.”
Mitchell is a strong pass-catcher who made plays at several different spots on the field—down the seam, crossers, and even out of the backfield—and projects to be able to translate all of those skills in the NFL. His game has some Charles Clay (Miami Dolphins/Buffalo Bills) vibes to it.
His best trait is his ability to quickly gain separation in his routes and turn it into yards after the catch (YAC). In college, over 70-percent of his receptions went for a first down or touchdown. His basketball background shows up in his contact balance, as he can brush off smaller defenders who don’t take proper angles or aren’t sound in their technique.
As a blocker, Mitchell is sound and should fit in well with the Lions' zone-blocking scheme, either from an inline position or in the backfield. He’s not as proficient in blocking from the slot (in space) but as a complementary option, he likely won’t be asked to do that often. There are some improvements to make, but he has two key traits that show up on film when blocking: active with his hands and never quits on a play or assignment.
With T.J. Hockenson in a starting role, the Lions went into the draft looking for a complementary piece who could fill multiple roles and compete for a top reserve spot. After Josh Hill retired before last season, the Lions have been looking for a TE2, who can be position versatile. The Lions split the role last season, leaning on superback Jason Cabinda and Brock Wright, both of whom remain on the roster this season. Additionally, the Lions signed Garrett Griffin in free agency, who also has experience in this role from his time with the Saints—where Lions’ coach Dan Campbell was his position coach for five seasons.
Cabinda was re-signed on a two-year deal this offseason, is set in his role, and doesn’t figure to be in direct competition with Mitchell for snaps. But Wright and Griffin will very much be in competition with Mitchell, and all three making the roster seems unlikely.
Mitchell has the skillset and versatility to win the TE2 job outright, but he is only seven months removed from his ACL injury and there will be recovery time—he expects to be able to take part in training camp. Plus he’s got a learning curve ahead of him.
“I’m seven months out, seven months and some weeks,” Mitchell explained. “I’m pretty much back. I’m doing everything from running, cutting, running routes. I’m expected to be fully cleared by June at the latest. I’ll be ready to go by training camp. I’m excited.”
If he is indeed healthy for training camp and adapts quickly, he could climb the depth chart and potentially find himself in a key role as a rookie.