Niyo: Lions setting table for tight ends Hockenson, James to shine

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson will likely figure heavily in the Lions' offensive scheme this season.

Allen Park — They’ll get a better idea of what things will look like next week, when the Lions hit the field for their first offseason practice sessions as a team.

But even before they see new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s playbook put into action this spring, they’ve got a pretty good sense of where they’re headed. One look at the Lions salary-cap breakdown tells you plenty.

General manager Bob Quinn signed tight end Jesse James, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, to a four-year deal worth up to $22.6 million on the opening day of free agency. Then he went and spent a top-10 draft pick on Iowa's T.J. Hockenson, the top tight end in college football last season. His fully guaranteed rookie contract is worth nearly $20 million over the next four years.

So, yes, the way James sees it, they both figure heavily into the plans.

“I imagine that’s why they brought us here,” James said Tuesday, smiling. “They didn’t bring us in here and (decide to) pay two guys a lot of money to do nothing, or just have one guy out there at a time. So I imagine that’s kind of Bob Quinn’s image for us is to go out there and be productive and do something special.”

That’s the idea, all right — “Yeah, put them on the field together,” Quinn said on draft night — though just how productive or special it’ll be is anyone’s guess at this point.

For now, it’s up to Bevell and his immediate boss, head coach Matt Patricia, to figure out how to fit the new pieces into a cohesive plan.

But clearly, it’s not just the rookie in play here. It’s actually two rooks, which, as any chess player will tell you, is a combination that can form a pretty powerful attack when doubled up.

The Lions reportedly will pay tight end Jesse James $25 million over four years, with $11 million guaranteed.

Quinn long ago grew weary of talking about the Lions’ struggles at the position — “I mean, I think we’ve talked about last year’s tight end situation ad nauseum here,” he said last month — but it bears repeating just the same.

No team targeted tight ends with less frequency than the Lions did last season. Only 12 percent of Stafford’s attempts went to one of his tight ends. And the entire position group — led by Levine Toilolo, as it turned out — combined for just 45 catches, 461 yards and four touchdowns. There were 14 tight ends across the league who posted better numbers than that individually.

So it goes without saying that Hockenson and James and the rest of the Lions’ tight ends will be more of a focal point, beginning this week during OTAs in Allen Park.

James and fellow tight end Vance McDonald racked up 80 catches for 1,000-plus yards and six touchdowns in Pittsburgh last season. But only New England ran fewer plays out of a “12” personnel grouping — one back, two tight ends — than the Steelers did last season.

That’s expected to be more of a staple in Detroit this fall, as Patricia seems intent on establishing a ball-control offense that leans heavily on an efficient run game and play-action passing. Not exactly a novel football concept, but in today’s pass-happy NFL it could feel more like an exception than the rule.

“There’s just not a lot of teams in the NFL that have a solid two-tight end unit that could go out there and run any part of their offense,” James said. “It’s a huge advantage if you have two guys that you’re confident in, that you can throw out there and be able to run stuff you’d run out of a one-tight end set. If you have two guys that can go out there and catch the ball, you stretch the defense a little different than most teams do.”

Before they can do any of that, they’ll have to learn Bevell’s new offense. And for Hockenson in particular, the clock already is ticking. Rookies face a steep learning curve no matter their position, but for a tight end learning the run-blocking schemes, the pass protections and the receiving routes, it’s a bit of an overload.

“Football is football, but you just have to learn the new language and figure out how we do it, how the schemes work, how you can talk to the tackles, how you can talk to the wide receivers,” Hockenson said. “Hours and hours go into that. You’ve just got to be immersed in it.”

They all do, though veterans like James and Logan Thomas and Michael Roberts will be expected to help Hockenson and fellow rookie Isaac Nauta make the transition.

“That’s gonna speed up the process,” Hockenson said. “And we’ve got to speed up the process in order for me to help the team.”

Assuming they can, though, it opens up the board for everyone. Rooks can be pretty useful that way.

“It’s a good thing to be a tight end,” Hockenson said. “And with Coach Bevell, this is a great place to be for tight ends. So this entire scheme, we’re excited to be a part of it.”