Back in 2022 when all the Detroit Lions mock drafts began circulating around, there was one guy that I consistently kept mocking to the Lions over and over again. That guy was Virginia Tech tight end James Mitchell.
What I like most in a player is when a guy can do multiple things. I like a Swiss Army Knife of a player. That’s what drew me to Mitchell. He did a lot at Virginia Tech. The Hokies didn’t just use him as tight end, they also lined him up out wide as a receiver at times. He also ran the ball and even returned some kicks.
If we’re just talking about his level performance in college, there’s a good shot Mitchell would have gone somewhere in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. In another universe, he would have never been a Detroit Lion. In this universe, Mitchell tore his ACL in his senior season and he dropped into the Lions’ lap in the fifth round.
While Mitchell’s ACL injury happened a lot earlier than Jameson Williams’ injury did, the Lions still decided to take his rehab very slow. He did participate in training camp, but his participation was limited.
That limiting didn’t stop at camp. Once the season started, the Lions kept Mitchell inactive for the first three games of the season. When Mitchell finally got on the field, he was still on a pretty low pitch count while they had a full house of tight ends in front him.
Don’t see that limitation as the Lions thinking that Mitchell is not good. This felt deliberate in the sense that they wanted be precautionary with him while they got little tastes of what he could do. It’s clear the Lions drafted Mitchell with Year 2 and beyond in mind.
Besides, it’s not like tight end was a big part of the Lions offense in 2022. They heavily favored their receivers and the run game instead of their tight ends.
Even after the Hockenson trade, that never really ended. While the Lions tight ends did score nine touchdowns after the traded, they only accounted for 33 receptions for 287 yards. That’s not a misprint. That’s not me talking about one player. That’s an entire group’s output in 10 games.
In year two of the Ben Johnson offense, the Lions look like they’re about to start utilizing the tight end position a lot more after they selected Sam LaPorta in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft. For Mitchell, this means he should see quite the uptick in his play as well.
New Lions tight ends coach Steve Heiden seems to feel the same way. In a presser in April he talked a lot about Mitchell’s abilities as well as how hard it is to come back from a torn ACL in that first year.
“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. “I’m excited to get him his second year off the ACL. I think that’s an important year to grow and develop. I think there’s a lot of room to grow for him.”
Mitchell will more than likely not be this team’s top pass catching tight end. That spot is probably reserved for LaPorta since he’s more of a receiving tight end than anything else and Mitchell is a pretty good blocker. Still, Mitchell should see plenty of playing time— definitely a lot more than he saw his rookie year. Look for the Lions to trot out both these guys on some two (or three) tight end sets and let the defense figure out which one of them is going out for the ball.