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2023 Detroit Lions free agency profile: Can Shane Zylstra build off a strong finish?

Lions TE Shane Zylstra is likely to be re-signed in free agency, but can his role grow, too?

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

At this week’s NFL Combine, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes got a little snooty with the media. Holmes was heavily criticized midway through the 2022 season when he traded tight end T.J. Hockenson away when the team was 1-6. The trade itself wasn’t the problem, but Holmes’ insistence to the public that trading Hockenson was not a white flag move but something he viewed that would make the team better did cause some complaints.

The Lions proceeded to win eight of their last 10 games, so Holmes took Wednesday as an opportunity to gloat a little bit.

“I’m glad that the T.J. Hockenson trade’s being called a trade now, cause it was kind of a ‘wave the white flag’ kind of deal at the time when it happened,” Holmes said with a sly smile.

The Lions’ remaining tight ends did their job the rest of the way. While the yardage production was nowhere near what Hockenson produced, Detroit’s tight ends combined for nine touchdowns after the Hockenson trade.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those tight ends who just so happens to be facing free agency: Shane Zylstra.

If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here:

Unrestricted free agents: WR DJ Chark, RB Jamaal Williams, RB Justin Jackson, QB Nate Sudfeld, IOL Evan Brown, OT Dan Skipper, NT Isaiah Buggs, EDGE John Cominsky, EDGE Austin Bryant, LB Alex Anzalone, LB Josh Woods, LB Chris Board, CB Will Harris, CB Mike Hughes, CB Amari Oruwariye, SAF DeShon Elliott, SAF C.J. Moore, and K Michael Badgley

Restricted free agents: OT Matt Nelson, C/G Ross Pierschbacher, CB Bobby Price

Exclusive rights free agents: RB Craig Reynolds, LS Scott Daly,

Shane Zylstra

Expectations heading into 2022

Outside of drafting James Mitchell in the fifth round, the Lions didn’t add much to their tight end room, so while Zylstra was technically on the roster bubble in training camp, there wasn’t much concern for his job—especially after Devin Funchess bowed out with an injury. But firmly behind Hockenson and Wright on the depth chart, with Mitchell slowly gaining steam, there wasn’t much expectation to see Zylstra much in 2022, except for a possible small special teams role.

Actual role in 2022

Participation: 13 games (2 starts): 227 offensive snaps, 100 special teams snaps
Stats: 11 catches, 60 yards, 4 TDs — 2 kick returns, 46 yards
PFF grades: 59.2 overall (55.2 passing game, 25.3 pass blocking, 74.9 run blocking)

Zylstra didn’t see a ton of action early in the year, spending most of the first two months on the practice squad. But after the Lions traded T.J. Hockenson, Zylstra got the bump back to the active roster and was thrust into a significant role. In the final 10 games of the year, Zylstra averaged just over 21 offensive snaps per game.

Don’t overreact to that low pass blocking grade, as the Lions only asked him to pass block on three snaps all season, per PFF. That run blocking grade, however, is far more interesting and relevant. He run blocked on 86 snaps this season—nearly 38 percent of the time. His 74.9 grade there ranked second-best among all NFL tight ends with at least 50 run blocking snaps.

Even though he was a former receiver, Zylstra didn’t show up much in the receiving game. He only had multiple catches in two games all season. However, against the Carolina Panthers, he was unstoppable in the red zone. He caught five passes that day for just 26 yards, but found the end zone three times.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” tight ends coach Tanner Engstrand said of Zylstra after the game. “He’s been very resilient. He’s been up and down off the practice squad a time or two. Been on the active roster, we had to put him down, and then we bring him (up) – you know. And he comes back the same every day.”

That kind of hard work and resilience goes a long way with this organization.

Outlook for 2023

Contract status: Exclusive rights free agent

With how he finished the season, Zylstra should almost certainly be back on an affordable ERFA deal. Remember, the Lions can offer all their ERFAs a one-year, minimum salary deal and the player must either sign it or sit out the season. And while that decision seems simple, it’s unclear how the Lions will approach the rest of the tight end position this offseason.

Currently, just 2022 fifth-round pick James Mitchell and Derrick Deese—who has never played an NFL snap—are under contract for 2023. Brock Wright is also expected to be back on an ERFA deal, but that still leaves the Lions short on both experienced players and depth.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes hinted this week that they may be on the lookout for a more veteran tight end in free agency.

“If there’s someone that can help us that has a little more experience, maybe, that can bring a little bit more immediate contribution,” Holmes said, before going back and supporting the players they have. “But some of these guys, like a James Mitchell, coming off — he was a rookie, and he was coming off an injury. Brock Wright, him going in—I mean, those guys can play and they’ve shown that they can play.”

The fact that Zylstra’s name wasn’t specifically mentioned, though, could be telling. The Lions likely have high hopes for Mitchell, who was eased into his rookie season due to a torn ACL suffered in 2021. Wright was above Zylstra on the depth chart the entire season, and while his blocking wasn’t any better, he proved to be a more consistent receiving threat (18 catches, 216 yards, 4 TDs).

All of that is to say that Zylstra is likely third on the depth chart at tight end right now. If Detroit adds to the position in the offseason, it’s possible he’ll be back on the practice squad in 2023 or even potentially off the roster. However, Zylstra put enough good tape out there in 2022 to give himself a real shot at a significant role should he put in the work this offseason and show up at training camp and beyond.


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