Tight end wasn’t hard to pinpoint as a primary position where the Detroit Lions needed an extreme makeover from last year.
A combined 45 catches by four tight ends last season was a statistic that didn’t lie, and general manager Bob Quinn didn’t dally on the rebuild project.
He signed Jesse James, a four-year contributor with the Steelers, in the first wave of free agency. Logan Thomas, a former quarterback who was a backup tight end with the Bills the last two years, was added two weeks later.
Next up is the draft, and the timing is right for the Lions to add to the position. There’s talent and depth, with three potential first-round candidates: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant of Iowa, and Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., generally rated No. 3 in this trio.
Hockenson is considered the top prospect because of his ability as a receiver, route runner and blocker. Those skills don’t automatically transfer to the NFL, which Lions head coach Matt Patricia says makes evaluations difficult.
“Because the college game is very different in a lot of offenses, you don’t see some of the traditional stuff we’re looking for in guys,” Patricia said at the recent annual league meeting.
“There are a lot of pieces to that position now in our game.”
View photos of Bucky Brooks' Top 5 tight end draft prospects.
Hockenson showed an understanding of the learning curve he faces in his Combine media interview.
“I really pride myself on being a complete tight end, being able to block -- being able to split out and do different things,” Hockenson said. “The NFL is a completely different level. I understand that.
“You can’t compare college to the NFL.”
Following is a breakdown of the top candidates, with one to watch and others, along with the Lions’ position breakdown, draft priority and key stat:
Draft tight end rating: Strong, with three possibly going in the first round and depth below them.
Lions tight end breakdown: Back are 2017 fourth-round pick Michael Roberts, with 13 career catches, and Jerome Cunningham, who played sparingly in 2018 without a catch. Signing James adds a proven player with upside. Thomas was drafted by Arizona as a QB in 2014 and later converted to TE in Buffalo, where he had 19 catches in two years.
Lions draft priority: High. The fact that they tried to trade for Rob Gronkowski last year indicates the desire to upgrade this unit.
Key Lions stat: Levine Toilolo (21), Luke Willson (13), Roberts (9) and Hakeem Valles (2) combined for 45 catches. League wide, 14 tight ends had more than 45 individually.
Top 8 tight end prospects:
(Note: Workout results are from Combine or Pro Day.)
1. T.J. Hockenson, Iowa: 6-5, 251.
Profile: Legitimate top 10 ability and production in three seasons. Strong blocker and receiver. Plays faster than 4.70 Combine 40 time. Produced as a true freshman in 2016 (24 catches, 3 TDs). Closed out career in 2018 with 49 catches, 15.5 yards per catch, six TDs. Possible top 8 pick?
2. Noah Fant, Iowa: 6-4, 249.
Profile: Combine star at position – 4.50 40, 20 reps in bench. Agile and can leap. Like Hockenson, flashed his skills in limited opportunities as a true 2016 freshman. Role grew to 30 catches, 11 TDs in 2017 and 39 catches and seven TDs in 2018. A few rate him No. 1.
3. Irv Smith Jr., Alabama: 6-2, 242.
Profile: Lacks ideal size, with shorter arm length (31.5) than desirable. A good athlete overall, blossomed in 2018: 44 receptions, seven TDs and 16.3 yards per catch. Father, Irv, played tight end at Notre Dame and was the Saints’ first-round pick in 1993. Son a potential first-round pick.
4. Kaden Smith, Stanford: 6-5, 255.
Profile: Pretty much No. 4 in this group. Did not run well at the Combine (4.92 40) but did well in agility drills. After red-shirt 2016 season had production and big-play ability: 23 catches, five TDs and 18 yards per catch in 2017; 47 catches, two TDs, 13.5 yards per catch in 10 games in 2018.
5. Dawson Knox, Mississippi: 6-4, 254.
Profile: Switched from high school QB to tight end as a walk-on. Built to play tight end in the NFL – big hands and long arms – but his college production was minimal: 15 catches for 284 yards in 2017; 24 for 324 in 2018. Needs development, obviously. Timed in 4.51 at Ole Miss Pro Day.
6. Isaac Nauta, Georgia: 6-3, 244.
Profile: A prize high school recruit, he started and finished strong in three seasons. He had 29 catches and three TDs as a freshman, dipped to nine catches and one TD as a sophomore, then rebounded to 30 catches, three TDs and 14.3 yards per catch in 2018. Clocked at 4.91 in the 40.
7. Kahale Warring, San Diego State: 6-5, 252.
Profile: Tested well at the Combine – 4.67 40, 19 reps in the bench – which reflects playing multiple sports in high school with just one season of football. In 2017-18 he started five of 25 games and had 49 catches and six TDs combined.
8. Josh Oliver, San Jose State: 6-5, 249.
Profile: Good size, athleticism (4.63 40, 22 reps in bench), switched from high school linebacker/edge rusher to tight end in college. Seven catches in limited action his first two seasons combined, he had 35 in 2017, 56 in 2018. A candidate to break in as a No. 2 tight end.
One to watch: Donald Parham, Stetson: 6-8 and 237 pounds.
Parham is either a supersized wide receiver or an underweight tight end. What he wasn’t his last two seasons at Stetson was an underused pass catcher: 58 catches for 817 yards, one TD and 14.1 yards per catch in 2017; 85 catches, 1,319 yards, 13 TDs and 15.5 yards per catch in 2018.
Parham comes from a football family. His father, a cousin and four uncles played college football. One uncle, Jeremy Gallon, a 5-8 college wide receiver was drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round in 2014 but never made an active roster.
Others: Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M; Alize Mack, Notre Dame; Drew Sample, Washington; Foster Moreau, LSU; Zach Gentry, Michigan; Thomas Sweeney, Boston College; Trevon Wasco, Boston College; Caleb Wilson, UCLA; Dax Raymond, Utah State.