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Drafting T.J. Hockenson would be a mistake for the Detroit Lions

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Investing a top-10 pick in a slow-growing position doesn’t make sense for the Lions in 2019.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Indiana

It wasn’t that long ago that I was pounding the table for the Lions draft a tight end in the first round. Okay, so it was five years ago and that tight end was Eric Ebron, but it feels like yesterday.

Maybe I’ve learned my lesson. Or maybe I just don’t want to be burned again, but in 2019 I can’t see any reason the Lions should draft a tight end with their first pick in this draft.

It’s not that there aren’t talented tight ends out there (we’ll get to that in a minute). But it’s tough to imagine a rookie tight end making the type of immediate impact the Lions need in 2019.

That’s why I had to break this down when ESPN’s Todd McShay’s chose T.J. Hockenson in his Grade “A” Mock Draft and Detroit Free Press writer Dave Birkett did the same in his latest mock draft.

It’s fine to choose Hockenson on paper, but it’s also ignoring the fact that Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia are in win-now mode. They wouldn’t go out and sign Trey Flowers, Justin Coleman, and Jesse James to big contracts if they were expecting a full rebuild.

The Lions, rightfully or not, think they are close at making a run at a championship.

Taking a top-10 pick and investing it in a notoriously slow-growing position just doesn’t make sense.

With all that in mind, here are a few reasons why drafting T.J. Hockenson in the first round would be a mistake on draft day:

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

1. There isn’t much (if any) drop off between Hockenson and the next guy

There’s been debate whether Hockenson was even the best tight end on the Iowa team last year. Teammate Noah Fant is also getting some first-round buzz and is a far superior athlete to Hockenson.

Throw in other guys like Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. or Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and you can see there are intriguing talents outside of Round 1.

There’s no reason to reach for a player in the top 10 unless you think he’s far an above what you can find later in the draft. I just don’t see that in this year’s tight end class.

To get a better idea, I went back and looked at where some of the high profile tight ends over the last decade were drafted. Here are the results:

Where High Profile Tight Ends Are Drafted

First Round Second Round Third Round Fourth-Seventh Round
First Round Second Round Third Round Fourth-Seventh Round
Brandon Pettigrew Rob Gronkowski Travis Kelce Julius Thomas
Jermain Gresham Zach Ertz Jimmy Graham Aaron Hernandez
Tyler Eifert Martellus Bennett Jordan Reed George Kittle
Eric Ebron Kyle Rudolph Jared Cook
OJ Howard
Evan Engram
David Njoku
Hayden Hurst

Tight end is similar to running back or even wide receiver in today’s NFL. Time and time again teams are able to find talented, highly productive players in the later rounds compared to other positions.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2. Tight ends are one of the slowest developing players

If you’re Bob Quinn, do you really want to have another young, talented tight end that doesn’t hit his stride until he’s on his second team? If you’re Bob Quinn and Hockenson doesn’t play well immediately are you even going to be around to make that decision?

There is no question that Hockenson is a legitimate blocker and receiver coming out of college, but it’s an entirely new ball game in the NFL.

A tight end like Hockenson will be asked to be effective in the run and pass offense. That means understanding defenses, blocking assignments, passing routes, etc. His head is going to be swimming no matter what team or scheme he plays for next season.

Think back to Ebron’s time with the Lions. Even as more of big slot receiver, the Lions still needed him to be flexible and not be pigeonholed in the offense. This quote from former head coach Jim Caldwell sheds a lot of light on what is in store for tight ends early on in their career:

“One thing I think people don’t quite understand about playing a tight end position, you can probably notice that he lines up in a number of different places. He lines up at a true tight end position, so he’s got to know all the blocking schemes, routes from there. He lines up at an auxiliary (position), what we can an F, so he’s got to know all the protections at that particular location as well as the routes. And then we also put him in the backfield, so this guy literally has to know the slot receiver, the regular tight end and also a position out of the backfield as if he’s a fullback.”

This is no different for any tight end coming into the league, regardless of what round they are drafted in.

It just depends on if you want to spend such a high pick on such a slowly-developing position.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

3. The Lions would be spending too much on the tight end position

When the Lions signed Jesse James to a four-year, $25 million contract earlier this offseason it was unclear if that took the Lions out of the tight end market early in the draft. My hunch is that it probably did.

If the Lions stand pat and take Hockenson at number eight, his projected contract value will be just under $20 million. That would put the Lions at close to $45 million invested in their top two tight ends.

Looking ahead to next year, both contracts would be just under $10 million against the cap. That would put them near the top of the NFL in positional spending at tight end. I just don’t think that’s a smart way to build a football team.

The question I keep asking myself is this: Does adding an elite tight end make the Lions a playoff team?

If the answer is no (and I think it is), then draft day could be a sad one if you’re a Lions fan.

What do you think? Do you think Hockenson should be the pick? Why or why not?