The tight end position has been a thorn in the Detroit Lions' side for the bulk of the Matthew Stafford era. Sure, there have been some solid receiving campaigns from Brandon Pettigrew sprinkled in during the early years of Stafford's tenure, but tight end has really been a non-factor for the last few years. Drafting Eric Ebron in the 2014 NFL Draft could be looked at as a bust in many circles given his No. 10 overall billing.
With Ebron out of the picture catching touchdowns in Indianapolis, that spot in Detroit's offense was essentially a black hole in 2018. The 6-10 Lions saw tight ends targeted on just under 12 percent of Stafford's throws last year for a combined 461 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Not exactly a juggernaut.
While Matt Patricia wasn't able to get a lot out of that spot during his first year as head coach in the Motor City, there's hope blossoming in 2019. The Lions fired former offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and have hired Darrell Bevell, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks. Along with that new leadership on the offensive side of the ball, Detroit's seen a retooling at the position, spending top draft capital and big cash in free agency in hopes to make it a more lethal part of their offense.
For the first time in a long time, there's hope at the tight end position with the Lions.
Why not start with the No. 8 overall pick? Naturally, given his draft status, Hockenson comes to Detroit oozing with potential. The former Iowa product headlined a strong tight end class in 2019 -- fitting, as he was bestowed the John Mackey Award for 2018, an award that honors the top tight end in college football.
The receiving stats (47 receptions for 717 yards and six touchdowns in 2018) speak for themselves, but what separates Hockenson from the rest and makes him a rare prospect entering the NFL is his blocking ability. Pro Football Focus had the 6-foot-5, 247-pounder ranked as the fifth highest graded run blocker among Power 5 tight ends in 2018.
Of course, it's unfair to speak about a rookie in the same breath as former Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, but it's that versatility as a blocker combined with his skills as a receiver that has him as a potential star in this league.
Before even placing Hockenson in their tight end stable, the Lions went out in free agency to addressed the position by signing Jesse James to a four-year, $22.6 million contract.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers, James made a name for himself as a solid all-around tight end. He was a complimentary pass catching addition for the offense (30 receptions for 423 yards and two touchdowns in 2018), but his bread and butter was really in pass protection. As a pass blocker, Pro Football Focus gave James a 76.8 grade. He managed that as he played in around half of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps.
With Detroit paying him as much as they did, they undoubtedly have plans to use him even more in 2019, especially as Hockenson gets his feet wet in the early goings of his rookie season.
The other guys
Out of that bunch, Cunningham is the only tight end that was with the Lions in 2018, but he mostly spent time on the practice squad. Meanwhile, Traylor was signed back on July 22, days before the the start of training camp, so he'll have an uphill battle to make the opening 53-man roster.
Veteran Logan Thomas and 2019 seventh-round pick Issac Nauta are the intriguing pair in this crop and are the leading candidates to join Hockenson and James on the Week 1 roster.
Thomas is in his second stint with the Lions. Back in 2016, Thomas joined Detroit for a brief moment mid-season as the franchise attempted to turn the former Virginia Tech quarterback into a tight end. Just days after arriving, he was signed off the Lions practice squad by the Buffalo Bills, where he spent the next two seasons. Last year, Thomas played in 12 games for Buffalo and totaled 12 receptions for 77 yards. Given his size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and athletic ability, there's potential still in Thomas to incentivize the Lions in keeping him around.
With Nauta, the former Georgia tight end has been impressing in camp early with some strong catches. What could earn him a spot on the 53-man roster is his versatility, as he reportedly could be used as an H-back in Detroit's offense.
Darrell Bevell's impact
The arrival of Bevell will undoubtedly change how the Lions play on offense, but what does it mean for the tight end position?
What Bevell has been known for over the course of his career as an offensive coordinator in the NFL has really been his strong backfield. That could simply be thanks to the talent that he had at the position with Adrian Peterson in Minnesota and then Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. That said, it is safe to wonder if this hire really means more for second-year back Kerryon Johnson than it does for the tight end unit.
Again, the success for running backs in Bevell's system could simply be due to the talent he was given at the time. There are tight ends that have seen relative success in his offense from a receiving standpoint.
Former Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was solid, logging over 500 yards receiving for three straight seasons under Bevell. Even Jimmy Graham, while he wasn't what he was during his days in New Orleans, did go for 923 yards receiving in 2016 with Seattle and notched double-digit touchdowns the following year.
Nothing's a sure thing in the NFL, but there's optimism in Detroit at tight end, which couldn't be said at this time last year.