For many years, people around the NFL have talked about how difficult the transition is for tight ends making the leap from the college ranks to the pros. It didn’t matter how polished or explosive the prospect was, expectations for rookies were always kept low while the player found their footing at the next level.
I’m not saying that era is completely over, but the Detroit Lions may have found an exception to the rule in their rookie tight end Sam LaPorta.
Coming out of the University of Iowa, LaPorta was viewed more as a move tight end that had some upside as a blocker. However, through 12 games in Detroit, LaPorta is doing it all in offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense. From being split out wide as a receiver, in the slot, in-line as a blocker, in the backfield as a fullback, in motion—the Lions are asking a lot out of their rookie tight end.
Throughout the 2023 season, LaPorta’s responsibilities and role within the offense have expanded as his rapport with quarterback Jared Goff has grown. And in Week 13 against the New Orleans Saints, LaPorta exploded. Nine catches on nine targets, 140 yards, and a touchdown. Not bad at all, rook.
Let’s get into the All-22 and see how LaPorta was able to log a career day in his first-ever trip to the Superdome.
3rd-and-6 on the New Orleans 13. 10:24 left in the first quarter
Already up 7-0 after their first offensive series of the day ended with a touchdown, the Lions’ offense was quickly back in business after a Brian Branch interception gave them the ball back deep in Saints’ territory.
Goff is working out of the shotgun with the offense in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). LaPorta—circled in red near the top of your screen in the video—is sent in motion pre-snap toward receivers Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
While the design of the route combination is simple, the motion by LaPorta presents a wrinkle that makes life difficult for the defense. Reynolds, who is lined up on the ball, runs his route first. With New Orleans in zone and space being condensed due to being in the red zone, it is important for Reynolds to occupy the eyes of the Saints’ defenders.
St. Brown runs a short route and settles down underneath, which pulls Saints’ linebacker Demario Davis down. And just as Ben Johnson planned, Reynolds’ route clears out some space for his rookie tight end to make the play, leading to an easy throw-and-catch from Goff to LaPorta.
2nd-and-10 on the Detroit 46. 8:57 left in the first quarter
A little later in the first quarter, the Lions are already up 14-0 and have the ball again just outside of Saints’ territory.
LaPorta is lined up on near the top of your screen to the left of left tackle Taylor Decker, and the Lions are once again in 11 personnel. Once snapped, LaPorta releases inside and runs almost diagonally—putting space between himself and the defensive back.
With the Saints in zone, there is a bunch of space in the middle of the field. LaPorta flattens his route out around the 43-yard line, giving Goff an easy target right between the hashes. This is the rookie understanding his role, and how to best run his route against this particular defensive look.
Also, can we stop and appreciate that pocket Goff is throwing from? The Saints don’t have the best pass rush in the league, but it was still nice to see the offensive line bounce back after a tough outing on Thanksgiving.
3rd-and-5 on the Detroit 35. 3:46 left in the second quarter
First off, let me talk about how much I love this personnel grouping the Lions are rolling with on this snap. At the top of your screen, you have Josh Reynolds off the ball, with LaPorta split next to him on the line of scrimmage. Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs is in the backfield next to Goff, with Jameson Williams in the slot, and St. Brown in motion as the ball is snapped.
LaPorta releases first, working vertically with the Saints in man coverage. Reynolds releases underneath, giving LaPorta a one-on-one matchup with Saints’ safety Jordan Howden.
The former Iowa Hawkeye shows Howden some nice footwork on his release and is able to use his size and strength to stack the defensive back behind him near the top of his route. Right around the 46-yard line, LaPorta puts his right foot into the ground and snaps off his route, breaking towards the middle of the field.
Goff sees him the entire time, and despite a pocket that is somewhat collapsing around him, delivers a strike to LaPorta for a third-down conversion.
Also, watch LaPorta get up and put the ball down. The young man is feeling himself.
1st-and-10 on the Detroit 38. 2:59 left in the third quarter
Sometimes when you’re having a day, things just bounce your way. And that is what we see here on LaPorta’s longest reception of the day.
At the snap, it appears like the Saints are in zone coverage. Linebacker Nephi Sewell bumps LaPorta as the rookie tight end runs through his area, and appears to pass him off. Unfortunately for Sewell, not everyone is on the same page, and his team pays the price for it.
Saints’ cornerback Paulson Adebo looks as though he is playing man, and sticks with Josh Reynolds as the receiver runs down the seam. In doing so, Adebo leaves a massive void in the Saints’ zone.
Goff holds the defense in the middle of the field with his eyes before quickly resetting his feet and throwing a well-placed ball to LaPorta in-stride.
LaPorta does a nice job of getting his head around, catches the ball around the 40, and rumbles all the way down to the New Orleans 14-yard line before he is stopped.
3rd-and-7 on the Detroit 43. 2:48 left in the fourth quarter
LaPorta’s ninth and final catch of the afternoon wasn’t the flashiest, but it was certainly the most important.
The Lions had the ball up 33-28 with under three minutes remaining in the game, and if they could just log a few first downs, they would be able to finish the game the way they like to—with the ball in their hands.
All game, the Saints’ defense paid extra attention to St. Brown. Understandably so. St. Brown is one of the best receivers in football and has been carving up defenses all season. So even when he doesn’t have the best day in terms of statistical production, he is still impacting the game with his presence.
On this particular rep, you can see Adebo is in man on St. Brown, with safety Tyrann Mathieu bracketing the third-year receiver.
With the extra attention being paid to the Sun God, LaPorta is in a one-on-one with Saints’ safety Jordan Howden again, and just like earlier in this study—LaPorta is able to create separation and give Goff the space he needs in order to make this throw.
Seeing Goff have this level of faith in LaPorta already speaks volumes about how dependable the rookie has been in 2023. Goff is not a quarterback that just trusts his pass-catchers right away.
But LaPorta has put in the work. From rookie minicamp, to training camp, to now deep into the regular season. LaPorta has earned Goff’s trust in big-time situations, and it certainly shows in moments like this one.