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New Lions TE coach explains why James Mitchell’s 2nd year from ACL tear is so important

Lions TE coach Steve Heiden explains why second-year TE James Mitchell is facing an important year in his development.

NFL: DEC 18 Lions at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

New Detroit Lions tight ends coach Steve Heiden knows what it’s like to rehab from a torn ACL. In his own 11-year NFL career, he had to do it once. It’s a grueling work to just get back on the field, but even then you’re still playing not at your full capabilities.

“You’re really not yourself that whole next year,” Heiden told reporters on Wednesday.

Heiden, who was hired to replace promoted tight end coach Tanner Engstrand back in January, will now get impose some of that wisdom of experience on Lions tight end James Mitchell. Last year’s fifth-round pick, Mitchell tore his ACL at his final year at Virginia Tech in 2021.

The Lions opted to take Mitchell along slowly in his rookie season last year. He was a limited participant for most of training camp, and he was inactive for the first three weeks of the season. While he eventually did find his way to the field, he only surpassed 20 offensive snaps in two games and saw most of his impact on special teams. He wasn’t kept completely off the stat sheet, though, catching all 11 passes thrown his way for 113 yards and a score.

But Heiden sees even more potential in the 23-year-old tight end that he’s ready to unlock.

“There’s a lot of credit to him just being out there playing,” Heiden said. “The things you see on tape: you see the athletic tools, some of the things he can do movement-wise, and we’re going to grow and build off of that as we go into this year.”

Mitchell came to Detroit with the reputation of being an offensive weapon with underdeveloped skills as a blocker. In his last healthy season at Virginia Tech, he pulled in 26 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns. With T.J. Hockenson traded at last year’s deadline, there is certainly an opportunity as a receiving threat for him waiting on the roster—even if the supporting tight end cast, sans Hockenson, combined for nine touchdowns last year.

Heiden made it clear that while playmaking ability will always have its value, the tight end room will define itself as a physical, dominating unit.

“I think it’s still about physicality first and you go to the game with that mindset and that approach,” Heiden said. “Most of the time, the rest of it will take care of itself. I still think you can win a bunch of games in this league just being more physical than your opponent. Now, obviously as you go, you tie all the things on top of that — your technique, your fundamentals, your discipline, your approach to the game and all that, but I think it starts with physicality, and I don’t think that’ll change.”

That part of Mitchell’s game still needs to develop, but with a full offseason ahead for the second-year player and his ACL injury now fully in the rear-view mirror, the real work can now begin.

“I’m excited to get him his second year off the ACL,” Heiden said. “I think that’s an important year to grow and develop. I think there’s a lot of room to grow for him.”

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