Affordable tight ends for Detroit Lions to target in free agency
The Detroit Lions are in the market for renewed depth at tight end.
The Lions dealt their starting tight end T.J. Hockenson midway through the 2022 season. Hockenson is due for a contract extension this offseason, and Detroit was not ready to offer a lucrative contract to him.
In Hockenson’s absence, it was a tight end room by committee with Brock Wright standing out. The 24-year-old performed adequately in his second NFL season. He finished with 216 yards and four touchdowns in 2022. The highlight of Wright’s season was a 51-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the New York Jets in week 15. Lions Radio play-by-play personality, Dan Miller, provides a call on the play that you won’t want to miss.
Wright is set to hit free agency this offseason. Only two tight ends, James Mitchell and Deese Jr., are currently under contract with the team. While it is not a top priority, upgrading the defense carries that honor, adding talent to the tight end room is one area the Lions need to target this offseason.
The Detroit Lions should target tight ends in free agency
Assuming the Lions do not spend a top 60-pick on a tight end, free agency is the most likely place for them to find starting quality talent. Unless the team wants to roll the dice on a mid-to-late round selection. The question comes down to the price tag. The Lions do have cap flexibility. Cutting Michael Brockers opened up and additional $10 million in cap space. However, the team is unlikely to spend big on a free-agent tight end; Detroit was willing to move on from Hockenson for a reason.
There is a fine balance between cost and production, but the Lions should be able to find it in this year’s free agency class. There are plenty of starting-caliber tight ends entering the market this offseason, and there are even more rotational tight ends available as well.
Here is a look at some of the tight ends available to the Detroit Lions in free agency this offseason.
The best free-agent tight ends are likely out of the question. According to Spotrac, Dalton Schultz carries an average annual value (AAV) of $15.1 million. Irv Smith Jr. carries an AAV of $10.2 million and Evan Engram an AAV of $9.3 million. Mike Gesicki is more affordable with an AAV of $8.2 million, but even that may be a bit rich for what the Lions are looking to spend.
Jets tight end Tyler Conklin’s contract may be the best place to look for a starting caliber tight end who will not break the bank. Conklin carries an AAV of $6.75 million. Anything around that cap number or less is the likely sweet spot.
Retaining Wright’s services is easy for the Lions. The 24-year-old is an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, so all Detroit needs to do is extend a qualifying offer to him. With the moments he flashed late in 2022, it is hard to imagine the Lions not extending that offer.
Wright will be brought back for another year on a league minimum salary. He has shown enough to warrant bringing him back, but how he projects long-term is yet to be seen. The Lions would be well served to add more talent to the tight end room alongside bringing back Wright.
Veteran tight end Hayden Hurst has been productive early in his career. The 29-year-old has split his career between the Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals. He never asserted himself as anything more than an adequate starter, but that is fine for a short-term option.
Hurst tallied 414 yards and two touchdowns this season with the Bengals. He turns 30 before the 2023 season, so there is concern about a dropoff in production in the coming years. However, on a short one or two-year deal, Hurst should provide solid enough tight end play for the Lions to shore up more important positions of need.
Hurst’s AAV sits at $6.8 million, right around that Conklin range.
Austin Hooper and Robert Tonyan
Much like Hurst, Austin Hooper is a solid option for the Lions to sign to a short contract. Hooper, 28, is getting up there in age. By all accounts, his prime is behind him. But he played just fine with the Tennessee Titans in 2022. He posted 444 yards and two touchdowns.
Hooper holds an AAV of $6.7 million.
Robert Tonyan projects to be cheaper. The 28-year-old carries an AAV of $5 million. After finding early success with the Green Bay Packers, Tonyan’s numbers slipped. He went from an 11-touchdown season in 2020 to posting only two touchdowns each in 2021 and 2022. Tonyan will likely earn a one-year deal from a team. The Lions could easily bring him in and push finding a more long-term replacement for Hockenson to the 2024 offseason.
The Detroit Lions would receive good value by bringing Zach Gentry home. The University of Michigan product has never posted great numbers in the receiving game. However, he has made a name for himself as a more than adequate run blocker.
Gentry is, at best, a second-string tight end, and it is easy to see his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers come to a close. The Steelers have been impressed by the play of 2021 second-round pick Pat Freiermuth and 2022 sixth-round pick Connor Heyward. Gentry may be the odd man out in Pittsburgh, making him relatively easy to sign in free agency.
Gentry will not carry a large cap hit. He can provide reliable backup tight end play and give Wright or a potential draft selection the opportunity to develop in a larger role on the offense. With tight end low on the list of needs for the Lions, Gentry may provide the best value.
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