In the weeks leading up to Detroit Lions training camp, we’re going to do a position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. Our series continues with the Lions tight ends.
(The final year of each player’s contract is listed in parentheses.)
Starters: Eric Ebron (2018), Darren Fells (2017)
Backups: Michael Roberts (2020)
On the bubble: Cole Wick (2018), Khari Lee (2018)
Long shots: Brandon Barnes (2019), Robert Tonyan (2019)
The Lions made two key additions to their tight end crew: free agent Darren Fells and fourth-round draft pick Michael Roberts. The former has a lot of experience blocking, and was actually the third-best pass blocking tight end in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus. He could also bring some much-needed help to the running game. Eric Ebron has never been much of a blocker, so Fells’ size (6-foot-7, 281 pounds) will be a welcome addition in the lineup.
Roberts will help in the catching department. Though he’s not likely to make a huge impact in his rookie year, Roberts’ size and massive hands will give the Lions more options to go to two tight end sets in the future. Ideally, Roberts will develop the necessary blocking skills he failed to develop in college to become a more well-rounded tight end to complement Eric Ebron.
Ebron seems poised to overtake an entirely new role this year. With Anquan Boldin all but certain to be gone, Detroit could very well start using Ebron as a slot receiver. The addition of Fells allows Detroit to keep an extra tight end in the game to assist with blocking, while Ebron can do what he does best: present a mismatch against linebackers and run crisp routes.
As for the rest of the depth chart, the Lions will face a tough decision with how many tight ends to keep. Last year, the Lions kept just three, but with the Lions likely to use two tight end sets more often, I suspect they may decide to keep a fourth. If that’s the case, look for Cole Wick and Khari Lee to battle for that final spot. Undrafted free agents Brandon Barnes and Robert Tonyan are likely going to compete for a practice squad spot.
Need going forward?
The Lions are looking much better in 2017, but a few big decisions loom next year. Fells only signed a one-year contract, so Detroit may be in the market yet again for a reliable blocking tight end in the offseason. If Fells does well this season, it would make sense for Detroit to re-sign him, even if he’ll be 32 years old by then.
The Lions exercised Ebron’s fifth-year option earlier this offseason, meaning he’s locked up for the 2018 season. However, 2017 is a pivotal year for Ebron. If all goes well, the Lions may be looking to sign him to an extension next year. But if his development stalls, Detroit could start looking for replacements as soon as next offseason.