O'HARA: Rebuild of TE position gives Lions what they were looking for

The rebuild of the tight end position has given the Detroit Lions what they were looking for.

They upgraded the position’s talent level and versatility in multiple ways.

They have it with the individual skills of rookie first-round draft pick T.J. Hockenson and veterans Jesse James and Logan Thomas who were signed as free agents.

And they can have it as a group, in how the three players could be used at the same time.

“We’re very pleased with who we have in the room,” tight ends coach Chris White said Monday. “With all three of them, we have versatility. We can have all three of them in the game if we wanted to.

“We could be in spread formations if we want to be. We could be in condensed formations and try to run smash-mouth football plays.

“It’s versatility in the passing game, play-action passes, naked (roll outs) ... stuff like that.”

No position on the team was overhauled to the degree of the tight ends – and none needed it more, based on last year’s production.

None of the tight ends who were with the Lions in 2018 are on this year’s roster. And of the four tight ends who caught at least one pass, Levine Toilolo is the only one who made a roster this year. Toilolo is a backup with the 49ers.

The Lions’ rebuild started with signing James, who spent four seasons with the Steelers and had 112 catches and eight TDs the last three seasons while playing all 48 games.

Thomas, signed in the second wave of free agency to add depth, was converted to tight end in Buffalo after being drafted by the Saints as a quarterback in 2014. He had a career high 12 catches last year for the Bills.

And Hockenson was drafted eighth overall out of Iowa.

“He does things in practice that you just kind of say, ‘That’s what you’re looking for,’” White said. “The way he runs routes, catches the ball, his release – everything he does is kind of violent.

“The run game, he’s violent. Attacking defenses, he’s violent. Going up catching the ball, he’s violent.”

James brought a veteran presence, and the experience of having played in big games with the Steelers.

“That was key – a culture fit for Matt and Bob,” White said, referring to what head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn were looking for. “He’s been a very strong leader in that room.

“Then Logan comes from Buffalo. He has that quarterback experience. He shares a lot of knowledge, not just on tight end play but all-around offense. He’s been a great addition for that. And he has a little speed inside.

“He’s a great guy. He really is. He’s always smiling -- lighting up that room.”

There were some questions about drafting Hockenson in the top 10, given the history of the position. So far Hockenson has answered them. The Lions got the right guy at the right position for what they needed.

“T.J.”s done a nice job,” White said. “He’s progressing exactly where we want him to be right now. He’s very versatile. He’s a grinder, too. He works very hard.”

The type of players Iowa has produced under head coach Kirk Ferentz was part of what made Hockenson attractive to the Lions.

“That had a lot to do with it,” White said. “Coming from the program he came from, knowing the type of kid he is, his work ethic and how serious he is about football, that was a big part in our draft discussions.”

There’s also a solid project on the practice squad in seventh-round draft pick Isaac Nauta.

“He’s got a skill set,” White said. “He’s exactly where he needs to be. He’s got a chance to eventually make the roster. It's a good spot for him. He's a great kid. He loves football. He’s got a skill set we like.”

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