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O'HARA: Drafting a tight end at No. 8 in play for Lions

INDIANAPOLIS – No matter what the fan reaction might be, the possibility of drafting a tight end with the eighth pick in April is firmly in play for the Detroit Lions.

General manager Bob Quinn has heard what has been mostly negative reaction by fans to mock drafts speculating that the Lions will take tight end T.J. Hockenson of Iowa in the first round.

And while Quinn appreciates the passion of Lions fans, he won’t be influenced by it – good and bad – when it comes to making draft picks.

The bottom line: He blocks out the noise for all picks at all positions.

Quinn chuckled when asked about it Wednesday morning at the annual Combine.

View photos from general managers and head coaches speaking to the media on Day 1 of the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

“In all due respect to our fans -- and I have a great respect for them -- I can’t really listen to all that stuff,” he said. “If I listened to all that stuff out there, I’d be driving myself crazy.”

The 2019 draft is projected to be deep in tight ends, with Hockenson at the top of a group that could produce three first-round picks. Irv Smith of Alabama and Noah Fant, a teammate of Hockenson’s at Iowa, also are first-round candidates.

As a two-year player at Iowa, Hockenson had a big 2018 season – 46 catches for 717 yards, six touchdowns and an average of 15.6 yards per catch. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he was a strong blocker to go with his receiving skills, making him an even more desirable draft candidate.

There is no doubting that tight end is a position the Lions must fill with multiple players, either in the draft or by signing veteran free agents.

The anti-tight end reaction by Lions fans is based largely on their perception that the last two tight ends drafted by the Lions in the first round failed to live up to their draft status. Brandon Pettigrew was drafted 20th overall in 2009, and Eric Ebron was drafted 10th overall in 2014.

Pettigrew played seven pro seasons, all with the Lions, before retiring after the 2015 season because of injuries.

Pettigrew was an underrated go-to security blanket for Matthew Stafford early in his career. Pettigrew had 301 career catches, with 254 in a four-year span (2010-13) before injuries set in. That’s an average of 63.5 catches per season. Pettigrew was a strong blocker but suffered with occasional dropped passes.

Ebron had 186 catches in his four seasons as a Lion – an average of 46.5 per season. Unlike Pettigrew, Ebron was not a strong blocker, and he had a high drop rate all four seasons.

He also suffered from comparisons to Pro Bowl and All-Pro stars drafted after him – among them Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (12th) and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (13th).

The Lions picked up Ebron’s fifth-year option in 2017, but later released him in March of 2018. He signed with the Colts and had the best season of his career – 66 catches, 13 receiving touchdowns and one rushing, and his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Ebron exceeded the combined production of 43 catches and one TD by the three veteran tight ends carried by the Lions for the full 2018 season.

Levine Toilolo had 22 catches and the only TD – on a pass from Matt Prater on a fake field goal in the final game of the season.

Michael Roberts, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick, struggled with inconsistency for a second straight year and wound up with nine catches and three TDs. Luke Willson had 13 catches and 6.7 yards per catch.

Lions head coach Matt Patricia understands the matchup problems quality tight ends can cause from his tenure as defensive coordinator of the Patriots – and also from seeing first-hand the impact created by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of the most dominant players ever at the position.

“Tight ends are definitely part of the game right now,” Patricia said at the Combine. “It makes it really difficult to try to game plan against guys who can do multiple things – who have a certain skill set that you have to defend against one way or another.”

One way or another, the Lions have to build the position.

It might be in the draft.

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