Will T.J. Hockenson be the Lions’ next attempt at drafting a franchise tight end?
Throughout his tenure as Detroit Lions general manager, Bob Quinn has been fairly transparent when it comes to the NFL draft — at least more than one would expect. When needs have been identified, Quinn typically has gone after them.
In 2016, Detroit needed an offensive lineman, and Quinn took Taylor Decker in the first round. In 2017, the Lions needed a linebacker and selected Jarrad Davis. Last year was a bit of a surprise, with the Lions taking center Frank Ragnow; but in retrospect, the possibility of Quinn selecting another offensive lineman was always there.
So, where does that leave Detroit this year, when it is picking in the top 10 for the first time since 2014 in a draft that is deep at the Lions’ positions of need?
While there are still three weeks until the draft starts and many things to ponder, Quinn and Lions coach Matt Patricia might have laid out a blueprint for what they’ll be searching for with their comments over the past few months.
Quinn has been adamant that tight end is a position of need. Detroit signed two in free agency — Jesse James and Logan Thomas — and have Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham on the roster. For various reasons, none of them is a proven option. Roberts has struggled to stay healthy. James split time with Vance McDonald in Pittsburgh and hasn’t had a 500-yard season. Thomas is a converted quarterback who hasn’t had a standout season.
All have potential, but none has demonstrated high-level production for a sustained period of time. Which means tight end should remain a need in a draft that has at least three potential top-tier options in Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant and Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr.
Would the Lions really go with a tight end at No. 8? It’s possible, considering how much they struggled at the position last year and the unknowns of their current tight end options. Of the three potential picks, only Hockenson would make sense at No. 8. Fant or Smith would be strong second-round picks or late first-round selections, though.
“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 at the combine. “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.”
While tight end is an obvious position in question, it isn’t the team’s biggest need. That remains a high-impact defender — and at No. 8, that would likely mean a player in the front seven. It’s a draft with plenty of options, and at least one strong prospect should be available for Detroit at No. 8 between Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, LSU linebacker Devin White, Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat and a pair of Clemson defensive linemen in Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell.
At least one — and perhaps as many as three or four — of those players could be available at No. 8. If for some reason Williams were to fall to the Lions, he would make sense for Detroit as the top option, especially considering Quinn’s affinity for SEC players and the Lions’ love of Alabama defensive linemen. A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand were both Quinn selections.
Of the players listed, Williams and Allen are the least likely to fall to No. 8. If either one does, the Lions should consider it a gift and sprint to the podium to hand in the card. If they are not there, the options in the front seven will be plentiful.
There is another direction the Lions could look. It wouldn’t be exciting, but it would fall in line with the way Quinn has tried to build the Lions: through the offensive line. Both Florida’s Jawaan Taylor and Alabama’s Jonah Williams should be first-round picks. If the Lions wanted to move on from Decker — there’s been no indication of that, for what it’s worth — or don’t love what Rick Wagner has provided at right tackle, this could be a building block option. The Lions are high on last year’s rookie, Tyrell Crosby, but drafting Taylor or Williams early could allow them to give Crosby a longer look at guard, where an opening exists in the starting lineup.
This wouldn’t be as pressing of a need, but with Quinn, you can’t rule it out. While the Lions would prefer to have finished with a better record this past season and not have the No. 8 pick, it’s giving them an opportunity to build for the future with a high-impact player — as long as they get that player right.