Bob Quinn said college tight ends spend so little time blocking it's difficult to assess that part of their game. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Indianapolis — Star power at the tight end position can be a game-changer in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce are key cogs on two of the league's best offenses, teams that squared off in last season's AFC championship.
"Tight ends are definitely a part of the game right now that defensively, it makes it real difficult to try to game-plan against," Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia said at the NFL Combine on Wednesday. "The guys that can do multiple things are obviously more difficult or those players that have a certain skill set that you have to defend against one way or another can kind of put you in some binds."
Yet, teams have generally been reluctant to select a tight end early in the draft.
Gronkowski, who entered the league with injury concerns, was taken No. 42 in the 2010 draft. Kelce, a one-year wonder at the University of Cincinnati, fell to Kansas City early in the third round in 2013.
Most drafts, the first tight end off the board comes late in the first round. Twice in the past four years, it didn't happen until Day 2. And only once in the past decade has a team used a top-10 pick on the position, when the Lions took Eric Ebron No. 10 in 2014.
Why are teams so reluctant to draft tight ends early? Lions general manager Bob Quinn can't speak for everyone, but he has an idea.
"In college football, a lot of the times the tight ends are flexed out in the slot," Quinn said. "There’s only a certain amount of offenses in college football that I would say are pro style. Most of them are spread, four-wide, or three-wide with a tight end displaced. So, you get into evaluating guys like, ‘Wow, this guy’s a good receiving tight end, right? But can he block?’ You go through all his film and you’re like, ‘Well, there’s only 60 plays of him with his hand in the three-point stance, blocking a defensive end.’ So, the sample size of watching collegiate tight ends block, except for a couple schools, there’s not much there. So, maybe that’s part of it."
There's obviously a place for pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, but without being certain about a prospect's blocking potential, the risk of using an early pick is deemed too great a risk.
But what about those rare instances when an elite tight end prospect comes from one of those pro-style programs, where that prospect has demonstrated proficiency as both a blocker and pass-catcher against top-level college competition?
That's the buzz with Iowa's T.J. Hockenson, who won the John Mackey Award as college football's best tight end in 2018 after catching 49 passes for 760 yards and six scores with just one drop, while establishing himself as a dominant blocker.
So would Quinn consider using the No. 8 pick on a tight end like Hockenson?
"If it’s a player that’s worthy of the eighth overall pick, and he happens to be a tight end, then I’m not against that," Quinn said. "It’s kind of a little bit early in the process to say who that player may or may not be, but I don’t have any guidelines that I’ve ever developed over my years in scouting that say, ‘You can’t take a player at this position, at that number.’ Like, I don’t think that way. Everything is an individual, kind of basis, individual scenario each year, depending on where you’re drafting and what your needs are."
Of course the Lions' need for a tight end is glaring. After releasing Ebron last offseason, the team got paltry contributions from the position, a grand total of 43 receptions, 450 yards and four touchdowns.
"We’re going to do the best we can to try to improve that situation for us, whether it’s through free agency or the draft," Patricia said. "We’re looking at those guys pretty hard and trying to make sure we get somebody in there that puts as much stress on the defense as possible.”