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2017 Detroit Lions offseason needs: Lions have a top ten tight end, but nothing after that

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Eric Ebron posted a career year in 2016, landing inside the top ten in multiple categories, but the unit as a whole was the worst the Lions have seen since 2008.

Detroit Lions v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Eric Ebron finished 2016 ranked top ten in both receptions and yards for a tight end. The next highest catch total for a TE on the team was Clay Harbor with only three catches for 19 yards. In fact, all other tight ends outside of Ebron caught only six passes and no touchdowns in 2016. For comparison, that’s fewer than Brandon Pettigrew and Tim Wright each had in 2015. In fact, it was the worst receiving season from the TE group in Matthew Stafford’s entire career, even taking into account Eric Ebron’s strong showing. As much as we talk about the defense needing work, the line lacking depth, wide receivers dropping passes, not one position on the team was more of a one man show than tight end was with Eric Ebron. No tight end on the roster even had a shining moment, a flash of potential that makes you look forward to what could be. It was a horror show from the start. That’s a lot of doom and gloom, but if you’ve been following the positional write ups this offseason, you know there’s some good news coming.

Under Contract 2017: Eric Ebron, Cole Wick, Khari Lee, Kennard Backman

Pending Free Agents: Tim Wright, Matthew Mulligan, Brandon Pettigrew, Clay Harbor

Eric Ebron caught 61 passes in 2016, only one shy of his college and NFL career record. Like his college career, he didn’t get much work in the red zone, notching only a single touchdown. At UNC and as a pro, he’s always done his best work between the 20s, but the team didn’t have anyone to fill any other role that tight ends are supposed to on this team. Brandon Pettigrew was injured and never played, Tim Wright joined him, as would training camp darling Cole Wick after disappointing when the lights turned on. It eventually came down to Clay Harbor, who was forgettable, and Matthew Mulligan, who was solely a blocker. The unit as a whole was poor in so many ways it is astonishing that so few readily admit how badly this group needs an upgrade. Khari Lee spent most of the season on the practice squad, as did Kennard Backman, and both are primarily blockers.

Free Agents Available

Jordan Cameron, Martellus Bennett, Jermaine Gresham, Jared Cook, Larry Donnell, Jack Doyle

Free agency provides a good, not great group of tight ends that have a lion’s share of injury concerns, if you’ll pardon the pun. The good news is that the tight end market is so bereft of talent that the cost should be fairly low. There really isn’t much to talk about with this unit, other than to say that the team will most likely bring in at least one free agent. Most likely it will be a blocking specialist, so not a ‘big name.’ It might even just be Matthew Mulligan again.

Draft Targets

O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram, Jordan Leggett, Bucky Hodges, Jake Butt, Jeremy Sprinkle, Josiah Price, Michael Roberts, George Kittle, Eric Saubert

That’s a lot of names and I’d wager that most of you haven’t heard of most of these players. Or, you’ve taken a quick glance at their stats and casually moved on. O.J. Howard, for instance, who is most likely the top tight end in this class, posted only 45 catches for 595 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, while David Njoku who is challenging him for No. 1 had only 43/698/8. Both are nice stat lines, but don’t tell nearly the whole story for how these two—and many of these other guys—project in the NFL. There’s a good reason I’ve been so excited about this draft class, and on it’s most basic level I’ll put it this way: There aren’t any bad choices. None of the players I listed above gave me significant pause as to whether or not I could see them succeeding in the NFL, and while I have a lot more work to do and a lot more tape to watch, it’s notable that I have yet to see a player I wouldn’t draft.

O.J. Howard on tape is probably the best all around tight end I’ve seen in terms of athleticism, receiving ability, and blocking since I watched Travis Kelce. Kelce was much more violent (easily the most violent TE in the NFL even today), but Howard is more technical as a blocker and a bit more smooth in his routes as a prospect. Much of his lack of production can be traced to offensive scheme design and his quarterback.

David Njoku played wide receiver in 2015 before making the move to tight end in 2016. Unlike Jace Amaro, who made a similar move, Njoku doesn’t have concerns about his hands and after playing tight end for a year, he isn’t as raw as a blocker (though I wouldn’t put him super high there).

Evan Engram is the smallest tight end in this class, but probably one of the top two athletically. Stylistically, he’s very similar to Detroit’s own Eric Ebron in terms of working between the 20s, but hasn’t warranted the same level of hype due to being so undersized.

The remaining group is full of potential, both tapped and untapped. They all carry varying levels of being able to block and catch the football, but none of them are significantly below average in either category, while all are above average to exceptional in one or the other. I have some athletic ability concerns with Kittle, Price, and Butt (who will be coming off a season-ending injury), but this group has guys who will end up in the mid rounds that would go in the second or third round of any other draft. I plan on doing some more precise, individual write ups for the tight ends in this class, but I’m confident the Detroit Lions could take a tight end in any round of the 2017 NFL draft and that player would not only play on game days, but contribute in a meaningful way, whether the team looks for another receiving option or a blocking type.

Level of Need

So very high. When I said in the opening of this article that even Eric Ebron’s top 10 season didn’t keep this group from posting its worst numbers in the Stafford era, I meant it. It’s more than just the receptions, too, as there isn’t a player on this roster that I would trust blocking the edge on a consistent basis. The team goes into the offseason with four tight ends, but I wouldn’t be surprised if two or even three more are added between now and training camp (I’m not assuming all four tight ends currently under contract will still be with the team). It’s a position that not only lacks depth, but doesn’t have anything resembling it, and it’s one the team should look at augmenting as soon as they can... well, as soon as they can after the first round.

Previously covered needs: