Lions 2020 draft preview: Detroit needs in-house tight ends to step it up
Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Tight end.
► Current roster: T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, Isaac Nauta, Paul Butler, Matt Sokol
► Short-term need: Three out of 10
► Long-term need: Seven out of 10
► Top prospects: Cole Kmet, Adam Trautman, Hunter Bryant, Albert Okwuegbunam
► Mid-round options: Trautman, Thaddeus Moss
► Late-round fits: Devin Asiasi, Matthew Wilkerson
► Analysis: The Lions invested heavily into remaking its tight end room last offseason, signing free agent Jesse James to a lucrative, five-year deal in free agency and selecting T.J. Hockenson with the eighth overall pick in the draft.
The Hockenson pick marked just the sixth time in 30 years a team had taken a tight end in the top-10, with the Lions also being the last team to do it when they snagged Eric Ebron in 2014.
The immediate returns on the investment were hardly what you'd hope. Hockenson delivered an explosive debut, catching six balls for 131 yards and a touchdown. The remainder of the season, he and James combined for 42 receptions, 378 yards and one touchdown.
Given the committed resources, those two are obviously back in the fold for 2020. The expectation is Hockenson will take a big step forward in his second season, while offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will be tasked with finding a better way to utilize James in a complementary role.
At the very least, James should be expected to get back to the production he had the three previous seasons in Pittsburgh, when he averaged 37 grabs, 377 yards and three scores.
As for the third man in the rotation, Logan Thomas was solid in his role, but he's moved on to another opportunity, scoring a two-year, $6.1 million contract from Washington. Isaac Natua, a seventh-round pick a year ago, is the next man up, but he's a smaller option who can't be counted on to perform at the same level as an in-line blocker.
It seems unlikely the Lions will take another big swing at a tight end in the draft this year, but it's easy to remember the success the New England Patriots had when the team built its offense around Rob Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez at the beginning of the previous decade.
If the Lions have lost confidence in James living up to expectations, and are prepared to move on after next season, they could conceivable look for a long-term pairing with Hockenson. Yes, that scenario lands firmly on the side of unlikely, but it merits a quick thought for the purpose of this preview series.
Of the Day 2 names, Trautman is the most interesting. The Dayton standout has to overcome the stigma of coming out of a small school that doesn't have a history of producing NFL talent, but he sure looked like he belonged during the week of practice at the Senior Bowl. Plus, his athleticism stacks up against the top tier of NFL tight ends.
From a blocking perspective, Moss offers potential in the middle rounds. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss, Thaddeus gets after it as a run blocker, while offering plenty as a chain-moving pass catcher. He hauled in 47 passes for LSU during the team's championship season in 2019.
In terms of value in the later rounds, Asiasi, with a 6-foot-3, 257 pound build, has the bulk to line up off tackle with above-average ability as a receiving option. The Michigan transfer averaged a healthy 14.7 yards per catch while hauling in more than 40 passes for the Bruins last season.