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Bennett, Doyle would upgrade Lions at tight end

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Jack Doyle

This is the sixth in a series looking at positional needs for the Lions in free agency.

Allen Park – The Detroit Lions’ tight end group was another unit decimated by injury last season, with Brandon Pettigrew never recovering from 2015’s season-ending ACL tear and Tim Wright suffering the same injury early in the offseason program.

Eric Ebron, who was always expected to shoulder the load, also battled multiple ailments, starting with a badly sprained ankle early in training camp. That issue, along with a banged-up knee, cost him three games and hindered him in several others.

Even undrafted rookie Cole Wick, who emerged as an unexpected standout during the offseason program, couldn’t finish the season, landing on IR with a knee injury in early November.

This left the Lions scrambling for depth. The team tried a number of options, including Khari Lee, Clay Harbor and Matthew Mulligan, three veterans with varying degrees of experience, but all largely one-dimensional.

Ebron, entering his fourth season, continues to develop. He’s made continued strides in his production, finishing with 61 receptions and 711 yards, both career-highs. He also proved to be a more-reliable big-play threat, recording nine gains of 20 or more yards. But drops continued to be an issue, as Ebron had seven. Only Brandon Marshall (8) and Michael Crabtree (9) dropped more passes than Ebron.

Drops or not, Ebron is here to stay. It’s likely only a matter of time before the team picks up his fifth-year option that will keep him in Detroit through the 2018 season. But the team clearly needs to add more depth to the group, preferably a well-rounded option with an emphasis on quality blocking.

Free agent could give Lions depth at receiver

Martellus Bennett would be a great addition, if the Lions want to invest serious resources into the position. The outspoken tight end, who earned a Super Bowl ring during his one season with the New England Patriots, is in line for a big pay day after catching 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns filling in for Rob Gronkowski.

Another pricier option would be Jack Doyle. Just entering his prime, he’s on an upward trajectory that saw him catch 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns for the Colts in 2016. The 6-foot-6, 267-pounder had just 35 catches the previous three years.

A more reasonable-priced option would be Jared Cook, who turns 30 in April. Primed for a breakout during his one season with the Packers, he finished the year with 30 catches in 10 games. Still, he’s been consistent throughout his eight-year career, averaging 42 receptions the past seven seasons while grading out well as a run blocker and pass protector.

Lions could answer OL question marks in free agency

And if the Lions are just focused on blocking, Logan Paulsen isn’t likely to command much on the open market. After five seasons in Washington, which included 42 starts, he played in Chicago last year, helping open up some holes for rookie running back Jordan Howard’s 1,000-yard campaign.

Just don’t expect Paulsen to catch a lot of passes. He has never had more than 28 receptions in a season and has recorded just 16 grabs his past 32 games.

Lions tight ends under contract: Eric Ebron, Cole Wick, Kennard Blackman, Khari Lee.

Lions free agents: Matthew Mulligan, Clay Harbor, Tim Wright.

Top free agents: Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook, Jack Doyle, Ryan Griffin, Vernon Davis.