Allen Park — The Detroit Lions desperately need to upgrade their situation at tight end. That much is obvious.
But would the team really consider using a top-10 draft pick to address the need? Well, it's a sentiment that seems to be growing stronger among draft analysts.
For the second time in a month, a top draft prognosticator has slotted Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Detroit Lions at No. 8.
"Hockenson (6-5, 250) is a complete player who can run routes out of the slot on one play, then line up next to a tackle and blow up an edge defender in the running game on the next," ESPN's Mel Kiper wrote on his mock draft, which posted Monday morning. "I'm not going to call him a Rob Gronkowski clone, but there are similarities, particularly when you see each as blockers. And remember that Lions coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn saw firsthand what Gronk did for the Patriots during their time in the organization."
Kiper's projection isn't unique. Hockenson to the Lions has been bandied about in analyst circles since the end of the college football season. He was also the pick in former scout and NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah's mock last month.
"This might be a little early for Hockenson," Jeremiah wrote, "but he fits the physical identity the Lions have been attempting to build."
The Lions struggled to get tight end production last season, after cutting former first-round pick Eric Ebron in March.
According to general manager Bob Quinn, the Lions attempted to lure a number of free agents to Detroit, but were outbid. The team's attempted trade for future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski also fell flat, reportedly because he had no interest in playing anywhere but New England.
So while Ebron went on to have a Pro Bowl campaign for the Indianapolis Colts, catching 13 touchdown passes in the regular season and adding another in the playoffs, the Lions got 45 receptions for 461 yards and four touchdowns out their group of four tight ends.
Veterans Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson, who combined for more than three-quarters of those catches, are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, furthering Detroit's pressing need at the position.
Quinn, speaking at a season ticket holder summit last week, acknowledged the need and spoke about a promising draft class his staff had recently finished reviewing.
“Actually, just (Monday) morning is when we went through the tight ends with our scouts and I’d say it’s a really good crop,” Quinn said. “There’s an unusual amount of underclassman tight ends in this year’s draft, which really fit kind of what we’re looking for. So there’s numerous options there and also in free agency."
Hockenson tops that group of underclassmen.
Working in tandem with another early-round prospect, Noah Fant, Hockenson caught 49 passes for 760 and six touchdowns for the Hawkeyes this past season. He added another score on a 4-yard rush.
Hockenson also carries a reputation as a polished blocker, a skill that would unquestionably increase his value to the Lions and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
Lions fans, fearing history will repeat itself, are understandably skeptical of taking a tight end in the first round, especially the top 10. For most, Ebron was considered a colossal disappointment after being taken 10th overall in 2014. That opinion is accentuated by the slew of All-Pro talent selected immediately after him that year, including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, wide receiver Odell Beckham and offensive lineman Zack Martin.
In four seasons with the Lions, Ebron averaged 47 receptions, 518 yards and three touchdowns. He essentially replaced Brandon Pettigrew, another former first-round pick.
Pettigrew, the No. 20 choice in 2009, posted similar receiving production his first five seasons with the Lions, before his role in the pass game was reduced in favor of Ebron. From 2009-13, Pettigrew averaged 57 catches for 566 yards and three scores.