Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster situation and evaluate how the team might address these positions during the event. Today: Tight ends.
Current roster: Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, Khari Lee, Cole Wick, Kennard Backman
Top prospects: O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram
Mid-round fits: Jake Butt, Bucky Hodges, Adam Shaheen, Jordan Leggett
Late-round options: George Kittle, Michael Roberts, Andrey Avgi
Short-term need: 6 on a 1-to-10 scale
Long-term need: 8 on a 1-to-10 scale
Analysis: With Brandon Pettigrew still rehabbing from his third torn ACL, the Lions were forced to rotate through a number of different options to complement Ebron last season.
Matthew Mulligan, Clay Harbor, Lee and Wick, an undrafted rookie, all took snaps for Detroit last season. Orson Charles also spent a few weeks on the roster, but was limited to special teams. That group was primarily asked to block and finished the year with a grand total of six completions for 45 yards.
Ebron continued his steady development, despite some durability issues costing him much of training camp and three games during the regular season. Still, he managed to play nearly 70 percent of the Lions’ offensive snaps and finished with career-highs in receptions (61), receiving yards (711) and explosive gains, catching nine passes for 20 or more yards.
That’s closer to the production the team expected when they drafted him in the first round in 2014.
But the Lions need more than Ebron and found a temporarily solution through free agency, signing Darren Fells to a one-year deal.
A former international basketball player who didn’t debut in the NFL until he was 28 years old, Fells is a behemoth for the position, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 281 pounds. A proven blocker, he should solidify the edge of the Lions’ offensive line, while providing a capable weapon in the passing game.
The Lions also return Wick, Lee and practice squader Backman, but with a deep class of athletic tight end prospects, the team should have an opportunity to upgrade the back end of its depth chart.
At the top of the draft, Howard is the total package — an excellent blocker with untapped potential as a receiver. He’s expected to be long gone before the Lions pick. Njoku also offers a high ceiling, but in many ways, his skill set is too similar to what Ebron brings to the table.
If the Lions were to draft Njoku at No. 21, it would probably say something about Ebron’s long-term future with the organization. The Lions have until May 2 to exercise the fifth-year option on his contract, which would pay him north of $8 million in 2018.
The middle rounds are a more likely spot to fill the need. Butt checks off all the boxes, but might not see the field as a rookie as he recovers from a torn ACL. Shaheen, like Fells, is supersized for the position, but offers surprising athleticism. The learning curve is likely to be steep for the Ashland product, but Shaheen’s potential is enticing. And both Hodges and Leggett make plenty of sense with well-rounded skill sets.
Kittle and Roberts aren’t likely to last long if they make it to Day 3 of the draft. Kittle is an elite athlete who has played in a pro-style offense at Iowa, while Roberts has giant hands that help him limit drops. He was also a nightmare in the red zone last season, catching 16 touchdowns for Toledo. Finally, Avgi is one of several small-school prospects, in this case Western Oregon, who offer impressive athletic traits and developable upside.
This is a good draft if you need a tight end. The Lions should have no problem filling their need, it’s just a matter of how much they want to invest in the position.
Bon Wojnowski, John Niyo, and Justin Rogers break down the Lions' needs and possible choices in the upcoming NFL draft.