Five Draft Targets For Lions In 'Really Good Crop' Of Tight Ends

Another top-10 selection? Don't rule it out.

Will Burchfield
February 19, 2019 - 11:51 am
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Of the Lions' myriad needs this offseason, tight end ranks pretty high on the list. How high? Depends how you feel about their other needs at pass rusher...cornerback...wide receiver...and possibly guard, too. But the tight end group last season was pretty much a disaster, after the Lions cut Eric Ebron and then failed to land any big names in free agency. 

General manager Bob Quinn won't let that happen again. 

"The tight ends position is definitely a priority for us," he said last week. "We went into last offseason, we made many efforts at signing everybody that was available, and ultimately it came down to dollars and cents and we didn’t get any of those top guys. We got the guys who we got. Some of those guys performed well for us, but this is a position of need, we know that."

Free agency is relatively thin this year -- veteran Jared Cook is probably the best option out there -- but the draft is chock full of talent. In fact, there hasn't been a better year in recent memory to be searching for a tight end.

"It’s a good year in the draft for tight ends. Just this morning (last Monday) is when we went through the tight ends with our scouts, and I’d say there’s a really good crop. There’s an unusual amount of underclassmen tight ends in this year’s draft, which really fit what we’re looking for," Quinn said. 

Here are five options for the Lions in the upcoming draft. 

1. T.J. Hockenson, Iowa 

It'd be a surprise to see the Lions spend the eighth overall pick on a tight end, but Hockenson to Detroit is exactly Mel Kiper predicted in his latest mock draft. And the winner of the Mackey Award last season might be worth it. Hockenson has a complete skill set at his position and projects as a three-down starter as a rookie. He's drawn comparisons to Rob Gronkowski. There are likely numerous Pro Bowls in his future. 

Drafting tight ends in the first round hasn't been kind recently to the Lions, but those decisions came under a different regime. Quinn is determined to get more weapons for Matthew Stafford, and Hockenson would certainly check that box. 

2. Irv Smith Jr., Alabama 

Smith doesn't have the same all-purpose potential as Hockenson, but his pass-catching skills are right up there. He projects as a starting joker tight end in the NFL, which happens to be the type of role that Ebron thrived in last season with the Colts. To wit: Just worry about making plays. Smith averaged a healthy 16.1 yards per catch in his junior season at Alabama, owing to his ability to make defenders miss. 

Again, Smith isn't as polished some of the other tight ends on the board, but that could make him available to the Lions in the second (or even third) round. And remember, Quinn loves players from the SEC. 

3. Noah Fant, Iowa 

From a career perspective, Fant is the most accomplished tight end in the draft. He racked up 19 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Iowa, combining with Hockenson to form the most dynamic duo of tight ends in the country. Fant can line up anywhere as a pass catcher, and has the speed to cause problems once the ball is in his hands. He's also a dependable blocker. He'll likely go in the first two rounds. 

4. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M

A transfer from Kansas, Sternberger exploded in his first season at Texas A&M. He ranked first in the nation among tight ends in touchdowns (10) and second in yards (832). He can stretch the defense vertically and is a mismatch at every level. Burst is the word that might best characterize his game. What separates Sternberger from similarly-gifted tight ends is his toughness. He claws for yards after the catch and can hold his own as a blocker. Keep an eye on him, especially if he's on the board past the second round. 

5. Kaden Smith, Stanford 

Smith is a bit different from the other guys on this list in that he isn't lauded for his athleticism. But he can snare almost anything thrown his way thanks to soft hands and a catch radius as wide as anyone's in the draft. Add in his 6'5, 250 lbs. frame and Smith is the kind of guy who's open even when he appears to be covered, especially down the seam. He didn't put up huge numbers in his junior season at Stanford, which could make him a solid option for the Lions in the third or fourth rounds.