Is Lions star Sam LaPorta having the best rookie TE season of all time? Stacking up the NFL greats

The Lions got back on track on Saturday night, cruising past the Broncos to remain in contention for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed at 10-4. With three games to go, they’ve already logged their most successful regular season in almost a decade. And one of their players most responsible for the steep ascent is making history in his own right.

That would be Sam LaPorta, the rookie tight end who caught three of Jared Goff’s five touchdowns against Denver, giving him the clear lead among all TEs in scoring catches this year. A second-round pick out of Iowa in April, the 22-year-old had relatively big shoes to fill, replacing Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson, who was dealt to the rival Vikings last November. But would you believe that LaPorta, through 14 games, has already eclipsed the best single-season totals of Hockenson’s brief Lions career?

That’s just the beginning. A quick look at the history of rookie TE production makes something abundantly clear: LaPorta has already produced one of the best seasons of any first-year player at his position.

His nine TDs already rank third among all-time rookie TEs, behind only Hall of Famer Mike Ditka (12) and four-time Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski (10). He also ranks third all time with 71 catches, behind only six-time Pro Bowler Keith Jackson (81) and two-time Super Bowl champion Jeremy Shockey (74). And he’s sixth in yards by a rookie TE, ahead of Hall of Famers John Mackey and Ozzie Newsome, plus contemporary standouts like the Ravens’ Mark Andrews and 49ers’ George Kittle.

How close is LaPorta to actually holding the rookie TE records for all three categories? Have a look:

Most Receptions Keith Jackson 1988 Eagles 81 71

Most Rec. Yards

Mike Ditka

1961 Bears

1,076 758

Most Rec. TDs

Mike Ditka

1961 Bears

12 9

With three games left — at Vikings, at Cowboys, vs. Vikings — and the Lions still vying for playoff seeding, LaPorta figures to stay heavily involved in Detroit’s passing offense. Which means there’s a reasonable chance he’ll eclipse Jackson for the most catches in a rookie season, and a not-impossible chance he’ll also surpass Ditka to hold the triple crown.

Now, even if he does stay hot to do so, there’s a strong case to be made that Ditka’s 1961 production stands above the rest. Why? Passing games then weren’t nearly as seamless as they are today; in 1961, only one QB eclipsed 3,000 yards through the air, while 13 different QBs currently hold that distinction with three games left in 2023. So Ditka was truly a face of the NFL for his work, finishing fourth among all pass catchers with 1,076 yards, all while averaging almost twice as many yards per catch as LaPorta.

LaPorta, meanwhile, is certainly setting the bar for rookies and veterans at his position, but he’s doing it in a day and age where starting TEs — especially those drafted in early rounds — are expected to be major contributors in the passing game. That’s not to say his sudden stardom is any less deserving of recognition. This is, after all, a rookie currently keeping pace with the likes of Kittle, Andrews, Hockenson and Travis Kelce, who’s in the running for most accomplished TE of all time.

Not too shabby indeed.

The Detroit Lions rookie tight end, Sam LaPorta, has been making waves in the NFL with his impressive performance this season. In a recent game against the Denver Broncos, LaPorta caught three touchdown passes from quarterback Jared Goff, solidifying his position as the leading tight end in scoring catches this year. LaPorta, a second-round pick out of Iowa, has already surpassed the best single-season totals of his predecessor, Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson. In fact, LaPorta’s rookie season has been one of the best in history for a first-year player at his position. He currently ranks third all-time among rookie tight ends in touchdown receptions, behind only Hall of Famer Mike Ditka and Rob Gronkowski. He also ranks third in catches and sixth in yards by a rookie tight end. With three games left in the regular season, LaPorta has a chance to break rookie records for most receptions, most receiving yards, and most receiving touchdowns by a tight end. Although his achievements are impressive, there is a case to be made that Ditka’s 1961 production still stands above the rest due to the different era of the game. Nevertheless, LaPorta’s performance this season is remarkable considering the high expectations for starting tight ends in the modern NFL.

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