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Monday open thread: Who will be the Detroit Lions’ starting tight end in 2023?

After spending an early second-round pick on tight end Sam LaPorta, it seems obvious that he will be the Lions’ starting tight end. However, that title might not come in 2023, and that leaves the door open to a few other names.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

When the Detroit Lions traded away starter T.J. Hockenson mid-season in 2022, there was inevitably going to be a vacuum at the tight end position.

Going from a top-five player at the position to a 2021 undrafted free agent (Brock Wright), a 2022 rookie coming off an ACL injury (James Mitchell), and a 2020 undrafted wide receiver (Shane Zylstra) was obviously going to be a downgrade, but the Lions made due. Though unspectacular in the yardage department, the tight end trio combined for nine touchdown grabs, one of which was a game-winner thanks to a rumbling Wright.

There was very little the Lions could have done to improve their tight end group during the season, but once the offseason rolled around, the Lions had assets—cap space and draft picks—to play with. Yet aside from bringing back Derrick Deese Jr. on a futures contract and re-signing exclusive rights free agents Wright and Zylstra, the Lions were quiet in free agency. Instead, their attention turned to the draft, where they ended up spending the 34th selection on Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta.

Whenever a team spends an early pick on a tight end, the long-term goal is to develop them into a starter. While LaPorta is billed as their tight end of the future—and he has the talent to do so—will he step into that starting role as early as year one?

Today’s Question of the Day is:

Who will be the Detroit Lions’ starting tight end in 2023?

My answer: I think James Mitchell will be the starting tight end in 2023.

Before we get started, it’s worth noting that the title of “starter” is not universal. Whereas a starting quarterback will play nearly every snap, a starting tight end could very well be rotated in and out based on the play design. That’s what happened to the post-Hockenson Lions: Wright was officially the starter, but Mitchell and Zylstra were sprinkled in to a modest degree.

While LaPorta is the most talented tight end on the roster, I don’t think he’ll fulfill the starting role. The Lions value blocking ability, which is a lesser part of LaPorta’s game. For reference, the Lions tight ends combined for 784 blocking snaps to 625 receiving snaps in 2022. Asking rookie tight ends to block NFL-caliber defenders is a big ask, so I’d expect the Lions to take it slow with LaPorta as a blocker. Instead, LaPorta could see action as a de facto slot receiver thanks to his combination of size, speed, and after the catch skills.

Zylstra is similarly more of a pass catcher than blocker, while Deese is a massive underdog to even make the roster. That leaves Wright and Mitchell, and I think Mitchell could have the edge.

Mitchell has a lot of fans within the community and, more importantly, the coaching staff. Wright looks like the obvious starter given his role in 2022, but it’s worth noting what Mitchell had to deal with. Rookie tight ends typically have quiet a first season, but Mitchell was also coming off a significant college injury. That limited his involvement early on, and when Hockenson was traded away, he likely wasn’t ready for the starting role.

That won’t be the case in 2023, and I think Mitchell has a good shot to push Wright for a starting role. Mitchell offers more than Wright as a receiver, and his blocking has come a long way from his Virginia Tech days. Technique was the biggest knock on his scouting report, but the physicality was there. Tanner Engstrand, the 2022 tight ends coach and current passing game coordinator, deserves credit for helping that young tight ends group develop.

With an NFL season under his belt, I think Mitchell could win the starting tight end job in 2023. That being said, I expect every tight end on the final roster to see action on game day. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson likes to utilize two tight end sets, and I think Mitchell could be a notable weapon in that offense.

Your turn.

Poll

Who will be the Detroit Lions’ starting tight end in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Derrick Deese Jr.
    (10 votes)
  • 51%
    Sam LaPorta
    (538 votes)
  • 21%
    James Mitchell
    (226 votes)
  • 24%
    Brock Wright
    (261 votes)
  • 1%
    Shane Zylstra
    (12 votes)
1047 votes total Vote Now

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