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Can James Mitchell make Year 2 jump with Sam LaPorta aboard?

With the ACL injury fully behind him, how big of a role can TE James Mitchell take in Year 2 with the Detroit Lions?

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

One of the most intriguing players from the Detroit Lions’ 2022 draft class is fifth-round pick James Mitchell. The tight end out of Virginia Tech may have gone much higher in the draft had he not suffered a torn ACL early in his final college season, but we didn’t see all that much of him in his rookie season.

Entering 2022, it looked like he was going to be given the opportunity to challenge for the starting tight end job until the Lions took Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta early in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

How much will that impact Mitchell’s development? Will the second-year player still be able to make a sophomore jump?

Let’s take a closer look as we continue our 2023 Detroit Lions player previews.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, and Kerby Joseph

James Mitchell

Expectations heading into 2022

As a rookie, Mitchell was coming off a torn ACL suffered in September of 2021. He did not participate in rookie minicamp or OTAs, but he was praised by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson for his grunt work in the study room.

“I think he kind of separates himself a little bit from those guys just in terms of his mental capacity,” Johnson said during training camp. “He’s been very impressive in the meeting room and in walk-throughs so far the stuff that he has been able to do. So from that aspect, I’m really encouraged.”

Eventually, Mitchell did make it on the practice field for training camp but was limited for most of the month.

With T.J. Hockenson occupying the TE1 spot—but not much else proven talent at the tight end position—there was an opportunity for Mitchell to carve out a role for himself, but clearly it wouldn’t happen right away, both because of injury and because it was obviously going to take some time for a fifth-round pick to acclimate to the NFL.

Actual role in 2022

14 games (0 starts): 183 offensive snaps played (16.0%)
Stats: 11 targets — 11 catches, 113 yards, 1 TD
PFF overall grade: 66.9 (19th amongst 84 TEs who played 100 blocking snaps)

  • Receiving grade: 76.3 (13th among 82 TEs with minimum 10 targets)
  • Pass blocking grade: 82.7 (1st of 88) — Note: only credited with 14 pass blocking snaps
  • Run blocking grade: 42.8 (72nd of 88)

Indeed, the Lions opted to sideline Mitchell for the first three weeks of the season. And even when he was active in Week 4, his role was mostly limited to special teams. For the next four games, Mitchell was playing between 5-15 snaps on special teams and never hit more than six snaps on offense.

That all changed in Week 9 when his offensive snaps hit 13—and it remained above 10 per game for the rest of the season. That Week 9 jump in playing time was no coincidence; it was the first game after the Lions’ traded Hockenson, and Mitchell was one of the biggest beneficiaries.

Despite a solid career at Virginia Tech as a receiver, the Lions used Mitchell almost exclusively as an in-line tight end. Of his 183 offensive snaps, 136 of them were spent inline or in the backfield. The remainder were out of the slot (19) or out wide (28).

The results were mixed. While he showed the receiving skills we knew he had in college—catching all 11 of his targets—he struggled at times as a blocker. Of course, as a rookie tight end coming off a major injury and a college career where he spent far more time in the slot, some Year 1 struggles were to be expected. Plus, the promise he showed in the rare instances as a pass blocker is a great development for his career.

Outlook for 2023

Mitchell will enter training camp third on the Lions tight end depth chart, at best. Second-round pick Sam LaPorta replaces Hockenson as the team’s primary tight end, while Brock Wright is entering Year 3 as a decent option for Detroit.

And while it seems like the addition of LaPorta may limit Mitchell’s ceiling, their respective games—and Detroit’s plan for each—differ enough to give Mitchell the opportunity for a serious Year 2 jump.

Based on OTAs and minicamp, the Lions are going to use LaPorta in situations that will highlight his skills as an extremely productive receiver. He’ll almost undoubtedly be the team’s F-tight end—moving all around the formation and used as an offensive weapon.

That’s opposed to the Y tight end, who is typically in-line. And while they will get their opportunities as a receiver, their primary role will be as a blocking disrupter.

Coach Dan Campbell already talked this offseason about expanding Mitchell’s game as a Y tight end.

“I think just part of the emphasis for him would really be in the run game, the blocking,” Campbell said. “He was a receiver in college before he was a tight end. So, he kind of has a feel and knack for some of those things. But it was the run game because we think there is a lot of potential.

“We think he can be an all-around type tight end for us, more of an athletic, Y tight end. He puts everything into it. And there again, you want guys – you have to want to do it, you have to be eager, you have to want to learn. And he has all of that. So that would lead you to believe that he will continue to develop.”

Wright will be his primary competition there, and Mitchell will have an upward climb to beat him out before the start of the 2023 season. However, also working in Mitchell’s favor is the fact that he’s now nearly two years removed from his torn ACL—which tight ends coach Steve Heiden knows is a huge deal from his own experience.

“I’ve had to do that myself as a player, and you’re really not yourself that whole next year,” Heiden explained. “So there’s a lot of credit to him just being out there playing. 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. So I’m excited to get him his second year off the ACL.”

Unfortunately, Mitchell missed more valuable time during OTAs this year due to an undisclosed injury. However, when he has been out there, he’s impressed Heiden with his work ethic.

“We come out here every day, and we have things for him to focus on and work on, and they show up (on the field),” Heiden said. “He works his tail off to try to give me what I want to see out of him on a daily basis. He’s getting better. Kid’s got a bunch of talent, man. I’m excited to see him get the pads on and be physical with some guys.”

So what would a big Year 2 jump look like for Mitchell? For one, it would just mean a bigger role in this offense, which seems likely. Per nfelo, the Lions used 13 personnel (three tight end sets) five percent of the time—which was 14th most in the NFL.

In an ideal world for Mitchell, at some point in 2023, he usurps Wright as the starting Y tight end, forming a nice complementary duo with LaPorta. However, development takes time at the tight end position, and Mitchell has not played a lot of football in the past two seasons. It’s entirely possible it takes the entire season—or longer—for him to jump Wright on the depth chart. But as long as he stays healthy and continues to get on-field reps, he’ll have the opportunity to grow and develop.

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