Lions looking for right fit with third tight end
Much has been made about the turnover with the Detroit Lions' receiving corps this offseason, but the team's tight end room has also undergone a significant makeover.
Sure, T.J. Hockenson, the central figure the past two seasons, is back and looking to build on last season's Pro Bowl campaign. But the Lions still need to replace the other 550 snaps from players who have moved on since last season.
Veteran Josh Hill, a reliable blocker who signed just ahead of free agency after getting let go by the Saints, was supposed to be the primary solution before he opted for retirement the week of the draft.
"We felt when we signed Josh Hill, we felt like he had some more in the tank, really liked what he put on film a year ago," tight ends coach Ben Johnson said. "I think all of us, we were really excited to add him onto the squad. Obviously, Coach (Dan) Campbell's knowledge of him as a player helped that process. He decided to retire as a player, and, yeah, the room does change. It absolutely does."
Even with the knowledge of Hill's impending retirement, the Lions settled on not drafting a tight end this year. Instead, they moved quickly to bring in another veteran heavy on experience, adding Darren Fells, who previously played for the franchise in 2017.
That signing brings some stability back to the group, but the team is still looking for a third piece (and potentially fourth and fifth via the practice squad) to round things out.
"We have two vets in there and five young guys that are hungry and sense opportunity," Johnson said. "... Each one of those guys brings something different to the table, skill set-wise. I'm really looking forward to seeing how they complement each other, because it's a little bit of a puzzle how we put that room together. We don't want three pass-catching tight ends. We don't want three run-blocking tight ends. We want the best mix that makes us the biggest threat here on offense."
In addition to being a complementary offensive piece, Johnson said the team will be looking for a third tight end who can contribute on special teams and doesn't make mental errors on the practice field.
"I don't exactly know, skill set-wise, what direction we'll go," Johnson said. "I do know this: Coach Campbell and I, we both put a lot of value, particularly the third and fourth tight ends, they need to be smart players.
"...At the end of the day, they still have to be able to do their jobs and do it well if their opportunity is called in a game. We will be very heavy on guys who don't make mental mistakes in practice because that will carry over to the game."
Detroit already has parted ways with two young players who saw snaps as the third tight end last season. Isaac Nauta, a seventh-round pick in 2019, was released in December, while Hunter Bryant, an athletic, but injury-prone undrafted free agent from a year ago was waived (with an injury designation) in late April.
That leaves Alize Mack, Hunter Thedford, Charlie Taumoepeau, Brock Wright and Jake Hausmann competing for the opening.
Mack, a seventh-round pick in 2019, spent his first offseason working with Campbell in New Orleans. Thedford joined Detroit on a futures deal the same day general manager Brad Holmes was hired in January. Wright and Hausmann are undrafted free agents from this year, while Taumoepeau earned a roster spot after a tryout during last weekend's rookie minicamp.