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2023 training camp preview: Tight end

Table inside Article
Name Games Rec. Yards Avg. TD
Sam LaPorta* 12 58 657 11.3 1
Brock Wright 17 18 216 12.0 4
James Mitchell 14 11 113 10.3 1
Shane Zylstra 13 11 60 5.4 4
Derrick Deese Jr. 0 0 0 0.0 0

*college stats

Best competition: Who makes the initial 53?

I asked Lions tight end coach Steve Heiden this offseason what he likes most about his group, and one of the first things he talked about was the versatility. LaPorta can do it all, Wright is a heck of an athlete, and Mitchell is big and physical with run-after-catch ability. Zylstra is crafty at finding open spaces, especially in the red zone.

Heiden said he and the entire coaching staff have been pleasantly surprised with the instincts and feel for the game LaPorta has shown early on. LaPorta had an impressive spring in OTAs and minicamp. He's expected to play a big role right away and will be an important weapon in Detroit's offensive attack in 2023.

Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell combined for nine touchdowns last season holding down the fort after the team traded Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to Minnesota at the deadline last season. All three proved they are more than capable of getting the job done.

The Lions kept four tight ends on the initial 53-man roster Week 1 last year and it wouldn't be shocking to see the same this season considering offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was the tight ends coach before moving to the OC job and that position plays heavily into his scheme. The wild card here is veteran Jason Cabinda, who can play both fullback and tight end. Will the Lions keep three tight ends and Cabinda? Or will they keep four?

LaPorta has the ability to line up both in-line and out wide, and that could give GM Brad Holmes some roster flexibility too.

View photos of the Detroit Lions tight ends heading into training camp.

Twentyman's take: What that tight end room looks like coming out of camp really depends on how much Zylstra proves he's one of the top 53 players on the roster. LaPorta, Wright and Mitchell seem like locks, but there can always be roster surprises at the end of August. A good camp and preseason by Zylstra could make the conversation between three or four tight ends on the initial roster an interesting one for Holmes, head coach Dan Campbell and this coaching staff.

LaPorta made my list of the five most impressive players during OTAs and minicamp for his ability to separate from defenders and be a reliable target for quarterback Jared Goff and the other quarterbacks. LaPorta was particularly lethal in the red zone, which is a really good development for an offense that already ranked fourth in red zone efficiency (66.2 percent) last season.

Playing tight end as a rookie is right behind quarterback for the toughest adjustment from college to the NFL, but LaPorta is smart and savvy and comes from a pro-style offense at Iowa that requires a lot from that position. I'm comfortable saying he has a chance to be the most productive rookie tight end this franchise has seen.

By the numbers:

4: Detroit was the only team in the league last season to have two tight ends with at least four touchdowns with Wright and Zylstra having four apiece. The Lions had three different tight ends produce a multi-touchdown game (Hockenson, Wright and Zylstra). It was the first time in NFL history that's happened.

5: Touchdowns recorded by the Lions in 2022 out of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2TE & 2 WR). Detroit was in two tight end personnel the second most of any formation at 11.3 percent. Detroit was in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE & 3 WR) 62.9 percent of their snaps last year and scored 29 times out of that formation.

12: Lions tight ends combined for 12 touchdowns last season, the most in franchise history and tied for the second most among any NFL team last season.

51: Wright's 51-yard touchdown to help Detroit win their Week 15 matchup against the Jets was the second longest touchdown by a tight end last season behind San Francisco's George Kittle and his 54-yarder Week 15 vs. Seattle.

153: Career receptions for LaPorta at Iowa, which is a school record for the tight end position.

Quotable: "It's a multiple group," Heiden said of his room. "There's a bunch of guys with Brock and Shane and James they can do multiple things. Then you add Sam into the mix and there's some talent there that we can work with. It's a neat group of guys."

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