Lions 2019 draft preview: It's a good year to need a tight end
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each position.
Today: tight ends.
►Current roster: Jesse James, Michael Roberts, Jerome Cunningham, Logan Thomas
►Short-term need: Six out of 10
►Long-term need: Nine out of 10
►Top prospects: T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Irv Smith jr.
►Mid-round options: Jace Sternberger, Kaden Smith, Dawson Knox
►Late-round fits: Dax Raymond, Tommy Sweeney, Kahale Warring
►Analysis: There's no reason to dance around it, the Lions tight end situation was a disaster last season. Outside of a few flashes, the team didn't get anywhere near the production it expected or needed from the group in 2018.
The group's remodel started with the controversial decision to cut former first-round pick Eric Ebron, as opposed to paying him $8.25 million for the option year on his rookie deal. For all his flaws, and drops, he served an important role creating mismatches in Detroit's offense. And to make matters worse, he landed in Indianapolis where he finished second in the NFL with 13 touchdown receptions, earning his first Pro Bowl selection.
Meanwhile, Detroit's contingency plans fell by the wayside, one after another. First, the team made a push to trade for Rob Gronkowski, but he had no interest in leaving New England and reportedly threatened to retire if the deal was made. Then, according to general manager Bob Quinn, the Lions made a run at a few of the top free agents available, only to see the price tags exceed what the franchise was willing to spend. Quinn also claims he also exhausted his options at the trade deadline, but couldn't find the right deal.
In the end, the Lions settled for potential, leaning of former fourth-round pick Michael Roberts and signing former Seattle backup Luke Willson. Veteran Levine Toilolo was later added to that mix.
In the end, Toilolo ended up being the group's top option in the passing game, but collectively, Detroit's tight ends caught just 45 catches for 461 yards and four touchdowns. The collective ended up offering more as blockers for the team's revitalized ground game.
That led to another makeover this offseason. Willson and Toilolo are gone, replaced by Jesse James and Logan Thomas.
James, a long-term solution, who signed a four-year deal, brings a nice mix of youth and experience to the table. An adequate blocker, the 6-foot-7, 261-pounder has averaged 37 catches for 378 yards and three touchdowns the past three seasons.
Thomas, the converted quarterback, is still developing as a tight end, but has shown promise during the transition the past two years in Buffalo.
But even with those new additions, there's plenty of room to upgrade the position, potentially turning it into a strength with the right selection from the deep group of prospects in this class.
And while many Lions fans don't want to hear it, after disappointing returns from both Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew, taking a tight end with the No. 8 pick is on the table.
Iowa's T.J. Hockenson, who has drawn stylistic comparisons to Gronkowski, is as complete a tight end as you'll see coming out of college. A dominant blocker, Hockenson is also an athletic and reliable pass catcher, utilizing skills he developed as a high school receiver. He dropped just one pass while catching 49 balls for 760 yards and six scores last season.
If the Lions were to trade down from eight, or trade back into the end of the first, Hockenson's college teammate Noah Fant comes into play. Fant's skill set is closer to Ebron's, but the Iowa product is faster and more athletic than the former Lion.
In the middle rounds, the Lions could look at Texas A&M's Jace Sternberger, another flex option, who will give full effort with his blocking assignments even if he's a bit undersized for the role. And Dawson Knox, from Ole Miss, is another quarterback convert, who has plenty of experience as a blocker and a lot of potential to unlock as a pass-catcher.
In the later rounds, the Lions should still be able to find a contributor. Boston College's Tommy Sweeney could effectively replace what Toilolo brought to the table, a larger framed blocker best suited to line up off tackle, but can also contribute in the underneath passing game.
And if the Lions are interested in a potential mismatch in need of extra development, former water polo player Kahale Warring is tall, long and moves well for his size. Add in soft hands and he has the potential to be groomed into a real red zone weapon.
Those are just some of the names of more than a dozen options who could help the Lions in this draft. It would be stunning if the team didn't use one of its selections, likely one in the first four rounds, as they continue to address last year's deficiency.