No Hockenson, no problem: Lions' success at TE offers optimism for 2023, beyond

DETROIT -- At 1-6, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes knew he had to shake things up ahead of the NFL trade deadline.

So, he made an unpopular move to send Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to their division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in exchange for a 2023 second-round draft pick and a 2024 third-round pick.

Lions coach Dan Campbell viewed the trade as “more food on the table" for the other skill players on offense. And those guys stepped up -- especially the tight ends.

The Lions would go with a committee approach at the tight end position instead of just one clear-cut starter, which resulted in the group ending the season with 12 combined touchdowns, tied for the second most among any NFL team, led by Brock Wright (four), Shane Zylstra (four), Hockenson (three) and James Mitchell (one).

Looking ahead to the 2023 season, the Lions (9-8) will look to build on their first winning season since 2017, which means figuring out what they want to do moving forward.

This offseason, the team hired Steve Heiden as the new tight ends coach following his stint in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals from 2019 to '22. Prior to that, Heiden held various roles with the Cardinals as an assistant special teams/assistant tight ends coach, in addition to serving as the team’s assistant offensive line coach. He joins a number of other former NFL players on Campbell’s staff after playing 11 seasons in the NFL from 1999 to 2009 with the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns.

What will he have to work with? Here’s a closer look at the tight end group ahead of next season.

How did the position perform in 2022?

Given the circumstances, the position group performed to the best of its ability -- on paper, possibly even overachieving. Quarterback Jared Goff frequently displayed trust in his tight ends, which was how they set a franchise record for the most combined touchdowns in a single season from tight ends in Lions history (12).

The Lions also saw three different tight ends finish with a multi-touchdown game in 2022, which was the first time in league history that a team had games of at least two touchdown receptions from three different tight ends in a season. On the one hand, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it, but it's fair to wonder if that production is sustainable going forward.

“It’s a good group, they work hard, they’re where they’re supposed to be and they do a good job getting themselves open, and I’ve been able to find them,” Goff said of the tight end depth during a Dec. 28 practice.

What do the Lions have coming back?

The Lions could very well run it back with the trio of Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell, as they were all signed to reasonable contracts and were highly productive, especially in the red zone, but it seems as if the group needs an upgrade in terms of pure talent to reach the next level. Both Wright and Zylstra are exclusive-rights free agents, meaning the Lions can sign them to one-year, league-minimum deals this offseason.

Mitchell, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2022, will also enter Year 2 of his rookie deal.

It’ll also be interesting to see what Heiden brings to the table on the coaching side and what type of talent he will favor to help an offense that ranked in the top five in points scored per game (25.71).

What should we expect this offseason?

The Lions hold two first-round picks -- No. 6 (via Los Angeles Rams) and No. 18 -- in the upcoming NFL draft, but it's unlikely they’ll use any of their high picks on a tight end, as improving the defense will likely be the top priority. However, they could go in that direction later in the draft on Day 2 or even potentially bring in another free agent to upgrade the position.

The tight end corps was solid after losing Hockenson, but the group still combined for only 40 receptions as a trio, which must improve. The Lions aren’t asking for high-volume pass-catchers but want gritty blockers who can help on the edge in both the run and passing game. Austin Hooper, Hayden Hurst, Evan Engram and Dalton Schultz are some potential veteran free agent targets whom the Lions could chase this offseason.

“We’re always going to be very strategic and selective with our approach,” Holmes said of the free agency plan during his end of the season availability in January. “... Regardless of how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we’re always are very selective and strategic with how we go about free agency. And that’s upcoming UFAs that are on our team as well as external adds, but it’s always going to be the same approach.”