It is looking more and more likely that the Detroit Lions will be without their star tight end Sam LaPorta. The rookie suffered a knee injury against the Minnesota Vikings in the regular season finale, and the early signs are far from ideal. Though LaPorta has seemingly avoided the dreaded ACL tear, the preliminary diagnosis is a bone bruise and hyperextension. This injury should not affect him long-term, but with just a week before the Lions’ pivotal Wild Card tilt with the Los Angeles Rams, it might be too short of a window for LaPorta to return.
That opens up the question: what do the Lions do to fill the void?
Looking purely at the position, the Lions only have two other tight ends on the active roster. James Mitchell, the 2022 fifth-round pick, has just 12 catches to his name, though he added a clutch 24 yarder against the Vikings on Sunday. Mitchell was the only other tight end available against Minnesota due to Brock Wright’s hip injury. Wright has missed three games in a row, and after three missed practices last week, it might be an uphill battle for Wright to play next week as well.
Anthony Firkser has shuffled between the practice squad and active roster and is a candidate to receive an expanded role. Though Firkser is an NFL veteran with 1207 career receiving yards, he has played a mere two snaps on offense this season—he might be able to step in, but he is far from a slam dunk to slot into the offense.
Though it is obviously late in the season, free agency might be an option for the Lions. Darrell Daniels was waived by the Lions from their practice squad in October and would have familiarity with offense. Yet much like Firkser, it would be hard to envision him as anything more than offense and special teams depth. Similar logic could be applied to a free agent like Cameron Brate. Will the Lions add someone? Probably. Will that player amount to much this postseason? Probably not.
The elephant in the room, however, is Zach Ertz. The former star tight end was released by the Arizona Cardinals in late November after recovering from a quadriceps injury. With the Cardinals rebuilding and handing the tight end reins over to Trey McBride, Ertz has been searching for a landing spot capable of making a playoff run. He had visited with teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens, but no deal was made. With LaPorta likely to miss time, Ertz could very well be the one player out there capable of stepping into a starting role. Ertz is no longer the elite tight end he used to be, but he has a connection with current tight ends coach Steve Heiden that could translate into a quick turnaround.
With a few answers but none of them ideal, how should the Lions address LaPorta’s absence?
Today’s Question of the Day is:
How should the Detroit Lions replace Sam LaPorta?
My answer: A combination of players.
At this point, the Lions do not have a player capable of replicating Sam LaPorta’s production. Then again, replicating LaPorta might not be the best course of action for the Lions. The reason? LaPorta is special, plain and simple. Few rookie tight ends have ever had the season LaPorta had, so expecting to replicate the chemistry between him and Jared Goff is unrealistic.
What might be realistic, instead, is using a combinations of players to make up for missing him. First, let’s look at what LaPorta brought to the table. Of LaPorta’s 981 snaps on offense this season, this is how they were broken down:
- Inline — 590 snaps
- Slot — 202 snaps
- Wide — 175 snaps
- Other — 14 snaps
LaPorta’s role as an inline tight end has the simplest solution: use James Mitchell or Brock Wright. I think one week is too little time to bring in a new tight end like Zach Ertz to learn the offensive scheme and, more importantly, trust in a do-or-die playoff game. The replacements for LaPorta’s inline snaps will have to come from one of these two players.
Wright had an expanded role last season following the trade of T.J. Hockenson, and while he is not dynamic like LaPorta, he would be an adequate substitution. Mitchell has a higher ceiling, but again, just 12 career receptions limits your level of comfort in him. I think the Lions use one of these players but opt to reduce their receiving role from a focal point to a limited one. The Lions could also supplement his blocking role with Dan Skipper as a sixth offensive lineman.
LaPorta has had success as the de facto big slot receiver, and the Lions do not have a great replacement for that role. Amon-Ra St. Brown is the first name when you think of slot receivers on the Lions roster, but he has nearly evenly split his reps between inside and outside positions (497 snaps in the slot versus 495 snaps out wide). St. Brown is best used as the multifaceted weapon he is, he should not be shoehorned into LaPorta’s role. That being said, he will likely see an uptick in targets as Goff’s other favorite target.
Instead, I think this could be an opportunity for Donovan Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones has had a limited role on offense since being acquired by the Lions, but Sunday’s game against the Vikings was his largest yet. He recorded a season-high 21 snaps on offense, six of which came in the slot. This is far from a large sample size, but he might be the next-best option in the slot. Jameson Williams and his speed would be enticing, but his skillset is better utilized as a field stretcher.
The reason why I say Peoples-Jones is the best option for the big slot role is because I envision Josh Reynolds as next in line for LaPorta’s snaps out wide. Reynolds actually started this season with a fairly even split of snaps in the slot and out wide, but he has been used almost exclusively outside recently. In Weeks 17 and 18, Reynolds recorded 84 snaps out wide to just 16 snaps in the slot. Peoples-Jones played a sizeable chunk of snaps outside with the Cleveland Browns, but I think the Lions like Reynolds more for this role.
Replacing Sam LaPorta with three separate players is not ideal, but it really highlights how important LaPorta is to this offense. He can fulfill so many different roles in one, and replacing him is just not feasible so late into a season. Instead, the Lions will have to make due with pieces they have. I have faith in offensive coordinator Ben Johnson to dial something up.
How should the Lions address the LaPorta injury? Let us know in the comments below.