2017 Combine Preview: Tight end

Even with Eric Ebron under contract for 2017, tight end is a position of need for the Detroit Lions this offseason.

Ebron had a nice year this past season with 61 catches for 711 yards and a touchdown in 13 games -- Not bad numbers missing three games.

But given the fact that all other Lions tight ends combined to catch six passes for 45 yards, depth is a real issue. Add in the fact that Ebron has never played a full 16-game slate because of injuries in his first three seasons, and the need is there. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw the ball just 26 times out of a two tight end set last year, but completed 22 of those passes for 376 yards with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 144.4, according to STATS, INC. The Lions were insanely efficient when throwing out of two tight end sets last season. Just imagine if they had two play-making tight ends.

"Eric had a productive year," Quinn said of Ebron after the season. "He battled through the preseason injury that he had, I think it was at the mock game at Ford Field. Then he had a couple other things that he worked through.

"I think Eric was probably his healthiest the last month of the season and that's the kind of player that Eric can be if he can be out there."

Ebron's 22 receptions over the last month of the season ranked fourth among tight ends, and his 222 yards (sixth) and yards after catch (sixth) were in the top six. But he also had a few big drops down the stretch, including two in Detroit's playoff loss in Seattle.

But the expectation is for Ebron to continue to improve, and for his numbers to continue to rise in his fourth season in 2017. Will the Lions add another weapon at tight end to give them a one-two punch there? This is the deepest tight end class draft class in recent memory.

With the NFL Scouting Combine fast approaching, here's a look at some of the tight ends to keep an eye on during the week in Indianapolis:


View photos of the prospects participating in the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.


School: Alabama

Ht/Wt: 6-6, 249

Best trait: Howard can do it all. He was the best player down in Mobile the week of the Senior Bowl, and it really wasn't close. He's a great athlete with terrific hands, and accelerates to the ball like a receiver. He's also a competent in-line blocker when asked to do that.

Concern: He can stand to add some more muscle to his frame. He's not a particularly tough run-after-the-catch tight end. He uses speed more than power.

The skinny: He was way too much for linebackers to handle at the Senior Bowl. They simply couldn't handle his speed. To the right system, he can line up all over and be a mismatch nightmare.


School: Miami

Ht/Wt: 6-4, 245

Best trait: Elite athlete. The former high school receiver and national boys high jump champion caught 43 passes for 698 yards and eight touchdowns this past season. He was a seven-foot high jumper in high school. That's crazy for a man his size.

Concern: Njoku still has a lot of room to grow as a player. He started just nine games in his career. He makes a lot of plays on pure athleticism alone, and needs to be more polished. He had eight drops over the last two seasons for drop rate over 11 percent.

The skinny: It's not often a tight end can take the top off a defense, but Njoku is a seam buster, who averaged 16.2 yards per reception. He's an unbelievable athlete.


School: Mississippi

Ht/Wt: 6-3, 236

Best trait: Speed. He showed great speed at the Senior Bowl with an ability to separate from linebackers with ease. A first-team All-SEC and All-American selection, he caught a team-high 65 passes for 926 yards and eight scores this past season.

Concern: He doesn't have a big frame and blocking in-line isn't his specialty. He best fits as a move tight end in the right scheme.

The skinny: His speed and athleticism are tough to deal with for linebackers. He can always be more polished in his route running, and he'll learn that at the next level, but he's a great receiving tight end that can create mismatches in the right scheme.


School: Michigan

Ht/Wt: 6-6, 250

Best trait: Production. Butt was the Big Ten Conference Tight End of the Year his junior and senior seasons with 51 catches for 654 yards and three scores in 2015 and another 46 receptions for 546 yards and four touchdowns this past year. He has great size and soft hands.

Concern: Butt suffered a torn right ACL in Michigan's Citrus Bowl loss to Florida State, so the medicals at the Combine will be important.

The skinny: Butt isn't a big-play tight end because he lacks elite speed, but he's a great in-line tight end that does everything well. He was the 2016 John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end. He'll become a security blanket for one lucky quarterback.


School: South Alabama

Ht/Wt: 6-4, 240

Best trait: Athleticism. First-team All-Sun Belt in 2015 (41-575, eight TDs) and 2016 (49-717, four TDs). It was good to see him have a good week at the Senior Bowl against stiffer competition. He plays the position like a big receiver with speed and run-after-the-catch potential.

Concern: He is anything but a polished route runner. It was noticeable to the naked eye at the Senior Bowl. That can improve, and has to improve, at the NFL level.

The skinny: He has a lot of great physical tools to be a nice receiving tight end, or even make the move to receiver. He also is an above-average blocker, even at his size, which shows his toughness.


School: Virginia Tech

Ht/Wt: 6-7, 245

Best trait: Size and athleticism. His 6-foot-7 frame makes for a large catch radius, and Hodges has good speed to go along with it. He recorded 20 touchdowns over his three seasons at Virginia Tech, and he earned a reputation as a big-play threat from the position.

Concern: The converted quarterback still has plenty to learn about the position, including becoming a more crisp route runner.

The skinny: He proved he could make plays at all three levels of a defense, and Virginia Tech moved him all around (even played some receiver). His size and athleticism could make him an especially terrific red-zone threat in the NFL.


School: Clemson

Ht/Wt: 6-5, 250

Best trait: Hands. Leggett had just two drops total over his junior and senior seasons. He caught 40 passes for 525 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior and had 46 receptions for 736 yards (16.0 average) with seven scores during Clemson's national championship season this past year.

Concern: Some question his motor and effort at times.

The skinny: A former high school receiver, Leggett has great size and terrific hands. He's not an elite athlete, but he can get away from linebackers and is still learning the position. His production the last two seasons speaks for itself.

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