Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is getting closer every day and we at Pride of Detroit are doing our best to get you prepared for the good times ahead. One of the ways we’re working towards that goal is to break down all the positional camp battles that will be taking place in Allen Park. If you missed any of the series, here’s what we have covered so far:
- How many quarterbacks will be on the active roster?
- Reserve running backs’ jobs are up for grabs
- How will the wide receiver room adapt its hierarchy?
Next up in the series is the tight ends group.
Setting the table
In past training camps, the Lions have rostered upwards of eight or nine tight ends, hoping for one of them to step up into a contributing role. In 2023, the Lions only have five tight ends on the roster, illustrating the confidence they have in this group of players and their ability to raise the level of competition.
Last season, the Lions ended the season with three tight ends on the active roster—Brock Wright, James Mitchell, and Shane Zylstra—and all of them return for this year's camp. Additionally, the Lions spent pick No. 34 on Iowa’s Sam LaPorta and he has immediately injected himself into the starter conversation. Lastly, the Lions brought back Derrick Deese Jr., who was with the team in training camp but failed to make the 2022 roster.
The Lions opened up the 2022 season with four tight ends on the 53-man roster, T.J. Hockenson, Wright, Zylstra, and Mitchell. For the first three weeks, Mitchell was inactive, as he was still acclimating from an offseason ACL injury. By Week 4, Mitchell was ready to go and Zylstra was released, then signed to the practice squad. When Hockenson was traded ahead of Week 9, the Lions simply elevated, then re-signed Zylstra to the active roster and the trio finished out the remainder of the season.
With LaPorta added to fill the Hockenson role, the Lions are faced with a similar situation as they had in 2022. The biggest difference for the tight ends group in this training camp is that none of the top competitors are coming off a major injury and all should be ready to battle it out.
Because the group is healthy, it’s fair to assume that the Lions will likely keep three tight ends—as they did the majority of the 2022 season—though there is an outside chance the Lions keep a fourth, depending on how each of the other offensive skill positions are constructed.
The starter battleground
The first battle will be for the primary starting tight end role with Wright—the incumbent—and LaPorta—the high draft pick—the likely two battling things out.
Wright has steadily seen his role increase over the last two seasons. He opened 2021 as TE3, eventually moving to TE2 after the team moved on from Darren Fells mid-season. In 2022, he was a firm TE2, then was elevated to TE1 after the Hockenson trade. At this point, the Lions trust him to do his job the proper way and that will gain him a lot of credit.
Rookies typically take time to acclimate to the NFL, but one of the reasons the Lions aggressively pursued LaPorta was because they believed he was pro-ready and could immediately step into a large role.
“Besides the quarterback, the tight ends have to know more than anybody else offensively,” coach Dan Campbell said during OTAs. “You’ve got to know it all. So, I think that’s why you don’t always see (rookie tight ends succeed early). Well, it’s one of the reasons why we drafted LaPorta because we think he can handle a lot. We think he’s got versatility. Physically, he can do a little bit of everything, but also mentally, he’s pretty sharp for a rookie.”
LaPorta wasted no time proving Campbell right in spring camp, quickly finding success on the field, and at times, looking dominant.
As the returning starter, Wright has earned the right to enter camp in the TE1 role, but LaPorta will be nipping at his heels the whole way.
The depth battleground
With Wright and LaPorta looking like TE1 and TE2 in some capacity, the remaining three will battle things out for the TE3.
With all due respect to Deese, he has a lot to prove before he should be considered in the mix for the TE3 role. To his credit, he looked much improved this spring, compared to last fall, but he still has a way to go to catch up with Zylstra and Mitchell.
When debating the battle between Zylstra and Mitchell for the job, it’s important to look at what their roles were last season and why those decisions were put in place. Zylstra initially made the team because Mitchell was not ready to play, and once he was, Zylstra was released, illustrating that the Lions wanted to see what they had in their rookie.
When Zylstra made his way back to the roster, his and Mitchell’s snaps were relatively close, with Zylstra getting a handful more snaps each week. This decision likely came down to trust. As pointed out when discussing LaPorta, rookie tight ends take a while to absorb the positional duties, and Zylstra was further ahead at that stage.
Entering this camp, Mitchell is finally fully healthy, with a year's experience under his belt, and is expected to be the favorite for the TE3 job. The Lions have invested in him, and this is his time to prove that investment is not wasted. That being said, if Mitchell is indeed still not ready to contribute, he will be out of excuses and that could be the door Zylstra needs to seize the job.
Erik: I firmly believe the starting job will eventually land with LaPorta. In college, LaPorta’s game tape was solid, but Iowa’s offense was so bad it likely tarnished his evaluation because he is showing much better on an NFL field than he did at Kinnick Stadium. Wright is capable of being a TE1 but I believe he is best suited as a TE2 and will give the Lions a solid one-two punch in 2023.
My early choice for TE3 is Mitchell based on upside and investment. That leaves Zylstra as a possible TE4 candidate for the roster or top option on the practice squad. I also think if Deese continues his upward trajectory, he has a shot at the practice squad as well.
So Jeremy, do you disagree with any of my projections? And follow up, is there room for a TE4 spot on the roster?
Jeremy: Yeah, I pretty much see things eye-to-eye. I just hope people don’t really get caught up in the “starting job” battle, since both LaPorta and Wright will play big—and different—roles with the team. In essence, they should really both be considered the starter, since Wright will primarily be the Y (inline) tight end, while LaPorta will be the F (slot) tight end.
I think this team still very much believes in Mitchell, so he is my heavy favorite to win the TE3 job and could even eat into Wright’s playing time this season.
As for a TE4 spot, it’s a similar conversation to what we talked about with a potential RB4 spot. Whichever player(s) amongst RB4, WR6, TE4, LB6, or FB1 provides the most value as a versatile piece and special teamer will have a leg up. Personally, I find it unlikely one of those final spots goes to a TE4, but it’s not out of the question.
Erik: Alright. So, therefore, we believe the tight end room looks like this entering camp:
TE-F: Sam LaPorta
TE-Y: Brock Wright
TE3: James Mitchell
TE4/practice squad: Shane Zylstra
Practice squad(?): Derrick Deese Jr.