While injuries have swept through nearly every position group for the Lions this season, the tight ends room has been largely spared.
With general manager Bob Quinn rotating the roster like a three-card monte dealer throughout the fall, no moves have been made at tight end, billed as perhaps the most improved unit on the team.
But despite Jesse James, T.J. Hockenson and Logan Thomas all having perfect attendance on game days, the production hasn’t been there.
James, one of the team’s most ballyhooed acquisitions, has been particularly galling in his inactivity, averaging less than a catch per game.
Through 10 games, James has eight catches for 64 yards. His worst season of his last three in Pittsburgh was a 30-catch effort that still resulted in 423 receiving yards last season.
Somehow, the usage for the 25-year-old is trending downward, playing a season-low 15 offensive snaps in Sunday’s 35-27 loss to Dallas. He's been targeted once in the two games since Jeff Driskel has relieved injured Matthew Stafford at quarterback.
The tight ends combined to catch one pass for six yards against the Cowboys.
“The tight ends didn’t have a lot of production just in general with any of them,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said Tuesday. “Sometimes there are plays that are called and routes that are run, and maybe we don’t get to the progression or the read.
“There are plays out there certainly where they’re doing a lot of dirty work and blocking and being in position to go out there and to help us in that way too.”
When James signed a four-year, $22.6 million deal with Detroit on the opening day of free agency — with $10.5 million of it guaranteed — he talked about hitting a higher ceiling for the Lions, including more red zone usage.
Instead, after the team spent the No. 8 pick in the draft on Hockenson, James has been targeted twice in the red zone, catching both but not finding the end zone.
It’s not like Hockenson and Thomas have taken the league by storm. The Lions are 18th in the NFL in receptions for tight ends with 43, despite leveraging considerable resources on an overhaul of last year’s disappointment of a position group. Hockenson’s two touchdowns have the position group tied for 24th in the league, better than just four teams.
While the stats have been absent, the blocking for James hasn’t been much better.
According to Pro Football Focus, James is rated 68th among 74 qualifying tight ends in pass blocking and 65th in run blocking.
“We’re using them and we’re moving them around,” Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “There are a lot of things that tight ends do that really don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet. We love all three of those guys, we love what they’re doing.
“We’ll continue to move those guys around and try to pick and choose spots that fit them best.”
Bryant deadline looms
The Lions are faced with a decision this week about rookie defensive end Austin Bryant, who needs to be activated for his debut soon or shelved for the whole year.
The fourth-round pick out of Clemson returned to practice in late October after aggravating the pectoral muscle he had surgically repaired in the offseason.
A 21-day window to activate Bryant expires this week, which would force him to miss the entire season if the team keeps him off the 53-man roster.
“Trying to make sure we had enough padded practices, we had enough repetition just in general to get him kind of caught up to where he was at,” Patricia said. “We’re just continuing to take a look at it.”
The forgotten member of a dominant Tigers defensive line that had three players selected in the first round, Bryant earned third-team All-ACC honors in 2018 with 44 tackles and eight sacks, despite playing with the torn pec.
A handful of Lions players attended morning skate Tuesday as the Red Wings prepared for their game that night against Ottawa.
Most of the Lions' 2019 draftees — Hockenson, Jahlani Tavai, Will Harris, Bryant, Amani Oruwariye, Travis Fulgham and Isaac Nauta — attended the skate.
Cornerback Darius Slay also committed to attending the game later, at first tweeting: “Thinking about attending my first hockey game tonight!!!!”
Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey chided Slay for never attending one before, responding, “You never been to a game!!?? You sleep!! Hockey live is dope!!”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.