15 top-level 2019 free agents who may fit position of need and scheme to draw interest from GM Bob Quinn, coach Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions.
Marlowe Alter, Detroit Free Press

Just eight tight ends have gone in the first round of the last 10 NFL drafts, and the Detroit Lions have taken two of them.

And while neither Eric Ebron in 2014 nor Brandon Pettigrew in 2009 lived up to their draft spot, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said that doesn’t mean Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson isn’t worth a look from the Lions in Round 1 this year.

“I think he’s going to be one of those guys that’s going to skyrocket,” Kiper said in a teleconference Tuesday. “You just can’t look at him as a one-dimensional player. He’s a multi-dimensional tight end, he can do everything you want and he’d be a great asset I think for Matthew Stafford to have in that offense.”

Kiper is one of two prominent NFL analysts to give Hockenson to the Lions in their mock draft this week. He said he moved the Iowa tight end up from No. 19 in his first mock draft published last month to No. 8 “anticipating a big workout” at next week’s NFL combine.

NFL Network analyst and former Houston Texans general manager Charlie Casserly also gave Hockenson to the Lions in his mock draft published Tuesday.

While those projections fit with one of the Lions’ biggest needs, a position general manager Bob Quinn said “is definitely a priority” to upgrade this offseason, they’ve also given fans pause considering the many holes on the Lions’ roster and the franchise’s recent history drafting tight ends.

In 2009, the Lions made Pettigrew their second of two first-round picks, No. 20 overall. He caught 71 passes in 2010 and 83 in 2011, but knee injuries cut short his career after the 2015 season.

In 2014, the Lions took Ebron over Aaron Donald, Odell Beckham Jr. and others. Ebron never fulfilled his potential in Detroit and was released last offseason.

He signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent and tied for second in the NFL with 13 touchdown catches this season. At the Super Bowl earlier this month, he attributed his breakout season to getting away from Detroit.

While Ebron was considered a catch-first (and maybe only) tight end coming out of college, Kiper said that’s not the case with Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner this year as the nation’s best tight end.

“He’s a blocker, I think that’s the thing,” Kiper said. “He will block in line and help that running game. He’s a complete tight end. He’s not a guy you can (only) flex out, he’s not just a great athlete who will catch the ball. He’ll do that, so he is a gifted athlete, but he’ll also block. He’s consistent.”

Hockenson played just two seasons at Iowa after redshirting as a freshman, and he split time both years with Noah Fant, another potential first-round pick.

He had 24 catches for 320 yards in his 2017 debut, and led the Hawkeyes with 760 yards and finished second with 49 receptions and six touchdowns last season.

Still, it’s rare that tight ends are drafted in the top 10 as teams generally assign more positional value to quarterbacks, pass rushers, cornerbacks and offensive tackles.

If the Lions were to take Hockenson at No. 8, it’d mark the highest a tight end has been drafted since Vernon Davis went No. 6 overall in 2006 and just the fourth time a tight end has gone in the top 10 in the last 23 years.

Ebron, Davis and Kellen Winslow Jr., the No. 6 pick in 2004, are the only top-10 tight ends since Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia started working in the NFL.

Kiper, though, said he’s worth that high a pick.

“He’s a quarterback’s best friend,” Kiper said. “That’s what he was at Iowa this year and he’s kind of a throwback, but he has the skills to fit in very well with today’s NFL.”

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