Elite, athletic tight ends scarce for Lions in NFL Draft

Kent Lee Platte
Special to The Detroit News

Editor’s note: The Relative Athletic Score (RAS) system was developed by Kent Lee Platte in 2012 to provide fans with a contextualized score on a scale of 0-10, to make it easier to understand how athletic draft prospects are when compared to their position dating back to 1987.

When the Detroit Lions released former first-round pick Eric Ebron, it sent waves through the Lions’ fan base. It’s not that Ebron was a beloved fan favorite, nor was it that his production was completely irreplaceable. The issue most fans had, at the time, was the team had no clear succession plan.

The Lions needed a tight end in the worst way, but the free-agent class was largely considered a poor one for the position. To make matters worse, the draft class also is viewed as a weak group, especially in comparison to the exceptional 2017 class.

Why is the draft class viewed so grimly? Look no further than the group’s athleticism. Almost no position has shown a more significant correlation between athleticism and NFL success than tight end, at least when it comes to receiving.

Since 1987, of the 37 tight ends who recorded at least one season of 750 receiving yards or more who qualified for RAS, only two measured below 5.0 out of 10.0. More than half — 21 — measured in above 8.0, a clear indicator that if you want top-tier production from the position, then you want elite athletes.

The 2018 class isn’t completely void of elite athleticism, but it has far fewer than most years. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki posted one of the highest scores at the position of all time, notching a 9.97 at the combine, putting him right between Jordan Cameron (9.99) and Vernon Davis (9.96). The next name on that all-time list? The former Seahawk and recently signed Lion, Luke Willson (9.94).

Willson is expected to step in and replace at least some of the production from Ebron (7.7 RAS), and he has the tool set to do so. The Lions also signed Levine Toilolo (5.54) to potentially challenge Michael Roberts (5.14), Hakeem Valles (5.85), and Brandon Barnes (7.29) for the TE2 role. But none of them are proven playmakers, and it’s unlikely the team will find one in the draft.

It’s slim pickings for elite athleticism in 2018. While the 2017 class had 15 tight ends above 8.0 RAS and 2016 had 13, only three 2018 prospects have a score above 8.0, and there are red flags for each.

Gesicki (9.97) has concerns with his blocking ability. Indiana’s Ian Thomas (9.27) has had only one season of moderate production, and comes with injury concerns. Finally, Hayden Hurst (8.31) of South Carolina is going to be a 25-year-old rookie.

Those three players are likely going in the first three rounds, simply due to the dearth of talent at the position. The rest of the class has its wrinkles, and there are options for the Lions if they’re not expecting a option to top the depth chart.

If they go the do-it-all route, Mark Andrews (7.39) from Oklahoma posted a similar score to former Panther Ed Dickson (7.43), and projects to come off the board in a similar draft range, in the third or fourth round. Less traditionally, at only 5-foot-11, N.C. State’s Jaylen Samuels (7.82) is probably more of a matchup piece, but has a better athleticism profile (though lower score due to his size) than infamous former Patriots standout Aaron Hernandez (8.38).

The Lions also could stay local if they wanted. Central Michigan’s Tyler Conklin (7.57) has a similar athletic score to pre-ACL tear Brandon Pettigrew (7.73), but doesn’t share the latter’s issues with drops.

Only two Pro Bowl tight ends since 2000 have had a RAS under 7.0: Zach Ertz (6.38) and Jordan Reed (3.78). Still, the Lions could find contributors in the mid or later rounds in Notre Dame’s Durham Smythe (6.04) or Stanford’s Dalton Schultz (7.02). Both share comparable size and speed with Ertz, as well as similar profiles. But with neither having anywhere near the college production, they’ll be taken much later in the draft than Ertz.

The 2018 draft class lacks star power at the top, but with the Lions already having filled their starting position in free agency, they aren’t likely to be looking for one. If the team wants to play the odds, they’ll take one of the three elite athletes, if one falls to the third round or, if there, consider Andrews or Samuels in the fourth or the fifth rounds.

It wouldn’t ensure the Lions get a starting-caliber player, or even a decent backup, but it would give the team the best shot to find a player capable of fulfilling their potential in 2018 and beyond.

Kent Lee Platte is a freelance writer.