What the Detroit Lions are getting in Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Two days before Iowa’s game against Kentucky in the Dec. 31 Music City Bowl, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was asked about tight end Sam LaPorta.

LaPorta was being discussed as a potential Wildcat quarterback in that game, because of the Hawkeyes’ dire situation at the position with scout-teamer Joe Labas expected to get the start. What was also notable about LaPorta’s role in that game was that he had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus he suffered in Iowa’s Week 11 game in late November at Minnesota. In a bowl game between 7-5 teams, LaPorta could’ve easily opted out … especially given his health situation. But he didn’t. He played through the injury, even though he was less than 100%.

In fact, LaPorta made the signature play in Iowa’s 21-0 shutout of Kentucky. After receiving a short screen pass, LaPorta broke six or seven Kentucky tackles while navigating his way upfield for a 27-yard gain. Iowa scored the game’s only offensive touchdown on the next play.

Sam LaPorta was pretty much the only viable weapon in Iowa's passing game in 2022, and he helped carry the team in certain games. Against Illinois, he had three catches of 30-plus yards.

“I don't think you guys are going to get me to lose my composure here, but Sam LaPorta is as good a football player as I've ever coached, probably the best one,” Ferentz said in that press conference. “He's an exceptional competitor, very talented. The way he practices, the way he plays, if my son could grow up, if he could just emulate that, whatever he chooses to do, I'd be awfully proud of him.”

Amazingly high praise, considering Ferentz has been a position coach for Rob Gronkowski (with the New England Patriots in 2010 and 2011) and for first-round NFL Draft tight ends T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 overall in 2019) and Noah Fant (No. 20 overall in 2019). That underscores what LaPorta’s toughness and character meant to his teammates and coaches during his four years at Iowa.

And it was those qualities, in addition to great physical skill, that allowed LaPorta to be chosen as a second-round pick (No. 34 overall) by the Detroit Lions on Friday night. He was the draft's second tight end chosen, even ahead of Notre Dame's Michael Mayer (who went one pick later to the Las Vegas Raiders).

LaPorta's choice in Detroit teams him up with fellow Hawkeye co-captain Jack Campbell, who was chosen No. 18 overall on Thursday night. It's the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era that the Hawkeyes have had three top-35 picks (Lukas Van Ness went No. 13 to the Green Bay Packers) and first time in the program since Iowa had three first-rounders in 1986 (Chuck Long, Ronnie Harmon, Mike Haight).

The positives

In Iowa’s rich tight end history, no player has recorded more receptions than LaPorta’s 153. And only Fant (4.50 seconds) and George Kittle (4.52) exceeded LaPorta’s 4.59 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. LaPorta’s athleticism stands out; no tight end forced more missed tackles than LaPorta in 2022. Those physical skills join a remarkable track record of consistent production.

At Iowa, LaPorta showed an ability to line up as an “X” receiver out, as an “H-back” in the backfield or as a traditional tight end on the line of scrimmage or in the slot. His toughness is seen as being on par with Kittle’s, and his athleticism isn’t far behind Fant’s.

The concerns

LaPorta did have a history of drops during his Iowa career, with an abysmal 14-to-5 drops-to-touchdowns career ratio. Part of the lack of touchdown passes was bad luck, a poor red-zone offense and quarterback play, yet he still let the Hawkeyes in receiving in 2021 and 2022.

His lack of length (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) limits his ability to catch 50/50 balls, and he isn’t an overpowering blocker.

Chad Leistikow’s final thoughts

LaPorta could’ve easily come out for the NFL Draft after his 2021 season, and he very well could’ve been the top tight end selected. Instead, he returned to Iowa with a desire to be a team captain where he performed at a high level and joined a loaded tight end class in the 2023 NFL Draft. The decision to stay proved correct. LaPorta will be in line for a four-year rookie deal worth nearly $9.5 million, per Spotrac.

There are countless examples of LaPorta’s selflessness, team-first demeanor, including when he took a shot at fans and media who were criticizing the play of Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras. There is no question that LaPorta’s physical skills, determination and locker-room persona will make him a long-term player at the next level. His grit is a perfect marriage in the Motor City.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.