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2018 Position Breakdown: Tight ends

The good: The improvements the Lions made in the run game aren’t just a product of the running backs and the offensive line, but also the tight ends and the receivers. Big runs don’t happen without the guys on the edge of the line and out wide making and maintaining blocks.

For some of the deficiencies the Lions’ tight ends had in the pass game this season, they were pretty good as run blockers, especially veteran Luke Willson, who was graded in the top 20 percent at the position as a run blocker by Pro Football Focus.

Levine Toilolo led the group with 21 receptions for 263 yards and a score. The 6-foot-8 veteran showed an ability to high point the football, and gave quarterback Matthew Stafford a big target down the stretch with nine catches in his last three games.

The bad: The Lions tried to trade for or sign some of the league’s top tight end talent last offseason to no avail after deciding to release former first-round pick Eric Ebron. They even had some conversations at the trade deadline midseason that didn’t come to fruition. Willson and Toilolo were backups last season in Seattle and Atlanta, respectively, and were signed in hopes more opportunity to play could ignite greater production from them. It didn’t turn out that way.

Detroit’s tight ends accounted for just 13 percent (43) of the team’s catches on the season, and the offense missed the big plays down the seam and yards after the catch from the position.

Second-year tight end Michael Roberts didn’t take the big leap the team hoped he would in his second season after being a fourth-round pick in 2017. He played in just eight games due to injury, and caught just nine passes for 100 yards, though he did have three touchdown grabs.

Key stat: Toilolo led the Lions with 21 receptions on the year. There were 41 tight ends around the league who recorded more than 21 receptions on the season. There were 14 tight ends league-wide who had more catches than all of the Lions’ tight ends combined.

Free agents: Both Willson and Toilolo are unrestricted free agents this season. I expect the Lions to try and bolster arguably their weakest position on offense via free agency and the draft.

Tyler Eifert and Jared Cook are a couple veteran names scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March.

Draft: This draft class is pretty loaded at tight end. It’s so good that it could challenge the 2006 class that saw nine tight ends taken in the top 100 picks. There might not be three tight ends taken in the first round, like in 2017, but overall, it’s a very deep class.

The pre-draft process will sort out the order, and there could be more names that emerge as top candidates, but Noah Fant (Iowa), Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama), T.J. Hockenson (Iowa), Kaden Smith (Stanford), Dawson Knox (Ole Miss) and Caleb Wilson (UCLA) are some of the names that head the class.

MVP: Toilolo’s 21 receptions on the year were the second most of his career. He showed he could make some plays in the passing game toward the end of the year, and has a large catch radius with his big frame. It will be interesting to see if he and the Lions have any talks in free agency about coming back. 

Most improved: There really wasn’t much improvement, not only from last year to this year, but also throughout the course of this past season. Most would have hoped to see major improvements from Roberts, but injuries and inconsistencies derailed that.

Quotable: “Back in March, we talked to basically every tight end on the free agent market and tried to get those guys here,” Lions GM Bob Quinn said after the season. “Some we were close on and some we weren’t. Some got paid an exorbitant amount of money that didn’t really produce this year, so we made a run at those guys.

“At the trade deadline, there were probably three or four conversations with teams about top tight ends around the league that just didn’t consummate. We’re looking forward to improving that position next season.”

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