The Detroit Lions have not had a lot of luck at the tight end position. Their draft picks in the past—T.J. Hockenson, Eric Ebron, and Michael Roberts—have not quite lived up to expectations, and their free agent signings have ranged from unfortunate (Josh Hill) to disastrous (Jesse James).
Unfortunately, it seems like the position will continue to be a spot of relative weakness on the roster this season. While Hockenson is playing at a decent level, there is little clarity on the spots behind him on the roster, and Detroit did not spend many resources to improve their situation this offseason.
Perhaps, though, that is a sign of confidence in some of the players who got their first taste of NFL football last season. One of those players, Brock Wright, has already earned quite a bit of praise from Lions coaches this offseason. So let’s take a closer look at Wright and expectations for the upcoming year.
Expectations heading into 2021
Wright was an undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame whose career mostly went under the radar. With the Fighting Irish, Wright caught just a total of seven passes over three seasons. Notre Dame eventually settled on an inline role for him, using Wright mostly as a blocker to varying degrees of success (he had a 69.6 run blocking grade in 2020, but graded 37.6 as a pass blocker).
But as tight ends coach (at the time) Ben Johnson would explain during Wright’s rookie season, the Lions saw a little more potential in him due to his circumstances in college and his phenomenal athletic scores.
“It was his pro day tape for me that flashed more than anything. He showed up and he was running routes. He ran a great 40-time, that only speaks a little bit of the story, but you look back into it, why didn’t he catch many balls? Well, heck they had Cole Kmet who was a second-rounder, and they’re targeting the tight end in the passing game. He was getting the balls. They have a young guy know who’s supposed to be a really good player as well. He kinda got a little bit passed over while he was at Notre Dame. It wasn’t so much because of his skillset, it was just more, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you more in the blocking because you’re better than these guys maybe in that role and we’ll give them the ball.’”
Still, it was hard to see Wright making the 53-man roster. Even though Detroit’s tight end room was extremely bare after Josh Hill chose to retire, Wright had a quiet training camp. With T.J. Hockneson and Darren Fells firmly one and two on the depth chart, there was likely only one spot left for a reserve... if that.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 10 games (5 starts): 12 catches, 117 yards, 2 TDs
PFF grade: 53.5 (71st out of 85 qualifying TEs)
Training camp proved to be disastrous for the Lions' tight ends. They waived Jake Hausmann and Hunter Thedford after poor performances in camp, while Charlie Taumoepeau suffered a serious injury during a drunk driving incident.
That left the Lions with just two players left for that TE3 spot: Wright and Alize Mack. The Lions chose neither, rolling with just two tight ends on the 53-man roster. That said, Wright was quickly signed to the practice squad—where he stayed for the first two months of the season.
Wright would get his first action in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Rams as a temporary call-up. He took on a huge special teams role that week—playing 20 snaps—while also getting his feet wet on offense (17).
When Fells asked to be released in early November, Wright was permanently promoted to the 53-man roster and saw a significant role for the rest of the season. That role increased even further when T.J. Hockenson was placed on injured reserve. Wright and fellow undrafted rookie Shane Zylstra would serve as the team’s primary tight ends for the final month of the season, earning mixed reviews from the coaching staff.
“They did some good things, but just to clean up things that they don’t know what they don’t know,” head coach Dan Campbell said in December. “By the end of this season, are you a guy that you start to feel like this is more of a veteran-type guy because he’s learning that fast? That’s what you really want is to (see) growth of these young players, these rookies and first-year players to have by the end of this season you feel like, ‘OK, these guys feel like veterans to us.’ They are learning at that rate and improving.’”
So did Wright earn the trust of the coaches by the end of the year? His play on the field certainly improved, and he flashed some potential as a receiver, hauling in 51 yards and a touchdown in the team’s season finale against the Packers. His blocking is still very much a work in progress, but there was some improvement by the year’s end.
Lions' current tight end coach Tanner Engstrand, who served as an assistant last year, saw huge progress Wright made during his rookie season.
“Last year he kinda came into OTAs, nobody really knew much about him, and shoot, he starts, what, like the last eight games of the year or something like that,” Engstrand said. “And he did a heck of a job. It’s a credit to him just really of his hard work and really his ability to absorb information and be a coachable kid. He’s just done a phenomenal job for us.”
Outlook for 2022
It’s a year later, and Detroit’s TE2 situation is somehow even less clear than in 2021. The closest thing the Lions have to a veteran behind Hockenson is Garrett Griffin, a pure blocking tight end who has a history with Campbell but has only made 20 game appearances in five years.
Outside of Griffin, Wright’s competition for that second tight end spot is Zylstra, undrafted rookies Derek Deese and Nolan Given, recently converted wide receiver Devin Funchess, and his biggest competition, fifth-round rookie James Mitchell.
Wright will likely enter training camp in that TE2 position, as Mitchell is not only a rookie, but he missed all of the team’s offseason program while he continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered last September. Even if Mitchell is ready by the start of the season, tight ends tend to struggle in Year 1, so it’s possible he’ll remain behind Wright on the depth chart into the regular season.
Wright still has a lot to prove and needs to seriously improve as a blocker, but right now, he’s Detroit’s best two-way tight end behind Hockenson. That makes him close to a roster lock at this point and the team’s leading candidate to assume the TE2 role this year.