For Lions, plenty of new names, potential in tight ends room

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
New Lions tight end Jesse James has 120 career catches for 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns.

Allen Park — Like many of the Lions assistant coaches who met with the media on Tuesday at team headquarters, Chris White didn’t really need the name tag in front of him.

His tight ends room, however, could be a different story.

While much of head coach Matt Patricia’s staff has the continuity NFL teams often crave, the tight ends roster underwent an offseason overhaul with the front office hoping that youth leads to more production on Sundays.

“Yeah, there’s been a lot going on,” said White, one of six position coaches available Tuesday back for his second year under Patricia, compared to two newcomers.

“Well, (the tight ends are) all smart, they really are. They talk in between plays; they’re constantly talking about football, which is a really cool thing to see.

“They’re all trying to help each other, which is another cool thing to see.”

New to the room are draft picks T.J. Hockenson (first round, Iowa) and Isaac Nauta (seventh round, Georgia), and free agents Jesse James of Pittsburgh and Logan Thomas of Buffalo, joining holdovers Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham.

Despite being 24, James takes on the role of veteran leader, as his 120 career catches, 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns more than doubles the rest of the room combined in each category.

“He’s a grinder,” White said of the Penn State product. “I think he was looking for that opportunity that he would be kind of that featured guy. I expect him to be a really good influence in the room.”

James might not have expected his new team to invest so much draft capital in the position, as the Lions drafted Hockenson eighth overall.

White said he’s been impressed with Hockenson’s innate ability to get open, which he credits to his multi-sport background.

“He has a way of getting open,” White said. “He’s kind of savvy, that type of football player, things you can’t really teach. 

“There’s a lot to that. Just kind of boxing out like in basketball and kind of creating separation just by subtly using his body.”

New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Hockenson should have the opportunity to play right away.

“From what I’ve seen on tape, from his college days, I think T.J. is going to be able to pick it up,” Bevell said. “He’s done a nice job of really applying himself in the classroom so far, picking things up on the field.”

A three-year starting quarterback at Virginia Tech, White praised the 6-foot-6 converted tight end’s ability to see the big picture.

“He’s been impressive,” White said. "He’s a really good athlete. He can run and catch, he’s long. All those guys, we’ve got really big catch-radius guys, good hand-eye coordination. I’m looking forward to seeing them with pads on, for sure, especially Logan.”

Nauta caught 68 passes and eight touchdowns in three seasons at Georgia. He joins a team that had 45 receptions and four touchdowns from tight ends last season, including nine catches, 100 yards and three touchdowns from Roberts. Levine Toilolo (San Francisco) and Luke Willson (Oakland) found homes in the Bay Area, while Hakeem Valles retired.

“I think that whole room has been a big upgrade, in all ways,” Bevell said. “From Jesse, to T.J., to Logan, to Mike Rob, it’s a great group for us to be able to work with. 

“We’ll kind of sift through those guys, and find out what they’re doing well. That’s a talented group, and we’re really excited about all those guys.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.