T.J. Hockenson (Photo: Michael Conroy, AP)
Indianapolis — If there’s one near certainty regarding the Detroit Lions offseason, it’s that the team will use at least one of its nine draft picks on a tight end. It’s simply a matter of how early they’ll pull the trigger.
The Lions’ brass has made no effort to hide what anyone with eyes already knows — the team didn’t get enough production from the position last season and needs more next season. And, pending some some unexpected additions to the free-agent pool via cap casualties, the draft is going to the best place to address the need.
"We’re going to do the best we can to try to improve that situation for us, whether it’s through free agency or the draft," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "We’re looking at those guys pretty hard and trying to make sure we get somebody in there that puts as much stress on the defense as possible."
Fortunately, the NFL scouting combine didn’t do anything to alter the consensus opinion this tight end class is stacked, top to bottom.
Heading the list is T.J. Hockenson, the Iowa standout and Mackey Award winner from last season. A realistic option to draw the Lions’ interest with the No. 8 pick, he showcased both his passion for the game and humility while speaking to the media and well-above-average athleticism during the on-field drills.
"I think being a versatile tight end is something special, especially now," Hockenson said. "Being able to flex out, being able to be in a three-point (stance), being able to do all of it is something I pride myself on being able to do, and something I want to continue to do, and continue to try to get better at. I feel like my best football is yet to come."
Noah Fant (Photo: Michael Conroy, AP)
The only tight end who had a better combine performance than Hockenson was college teammate Noah Fant.
While not considered as good of a blocker as Hockenson, Fant is the more athletic option of the two. He ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.5 seconds, the best at the position, while also posting fastest time in the 60-yard shuttle and the top vertical and broad jump numbers.
While Hockenson’s style has drawn comparisons to New England’s Rob Gronkowski, Fant sees more of another All-Pro is his game.
"I would say probably Travis Kelce would be my favorite," Fant said. "I like his passion for the game. I like the way he runs his routes. I like the way he runs, I like the way he does everything. He’s a great player and I try to model my game after him."
After their combine performances, both Hawkeyes established themselves as strong candidates to be taken in the first round, but if the Lions opt to address the position later in the draft, there should be plenty of other choices.
On the draft’s second day, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., UCLA’s Caleb Wilson, Stanford’s Kaden Smith or Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger all bring intriguing skill sets. The third day should also be flush with options, from Boston College’s Tommy Sweeny to Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox to Kahale Warring, the highly athletic project out of San Diego State.
Knox could be a late-round bargain. A high school quarterback who walked on at Ole Miss, the 6-foot-4, 254-pounder has shown good potential as a blocker, but, despite flashes, had limited opportunity to contribute in the passing game in college, potentially anchoring his draft stock.
“I just keep the walk-on mindset," Knox said. "I think that has been one of the biggest things for me, just acting like nothing is given to me. I think the moment you become complacent with where you are at, that is where you go downhill a little bit. So just work every day with the mindset that you have to prove why you are there, why you are there, why no one else is going to take your job.”
On Saturday, Lions tight ends coach Chris White got a close up look at all the options, helping conduct the on-field drills.
The team needs to bolster a room that combined for 45 catches for 461 yards and four touchdowns after cutting former first-round pick Eric Ebron last March.