The 2023 NFL Combine begins on Monday, February 27, with prospects arriving in their positional groups. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.
This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore the participants at this year’s combine that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers.
Up next: Tight ends
With the trade of Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson, it seems logical to connect the Lions with a high-end tight end in this upcoming class, but Detroit’s tight end room actually improved after his departure, leaning on a committee approach as opposed to a single starter. With all three tight ends the Lions ended 2022 with likely to return in 2023—James Mitchell is under contract, while Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra are exclusive rights free agents—the Lions could stand pat, or bring in competition with hopes of finding an upgrade.
What to watch for
Scouting tight ends with skills the Lions prefer—most notably blocking skills—is a bit of a challenge at the combine, because drills are limited to prospects working against air or bags. Without an opposing force working against them, keep an eye on players blocking techniques, like bending at the knees and hand placement.
In receiving drills, a lot of the same traits identified in the wide receiver drills stay true. That means, keeping an eye on things like explosion, crisp movements in routes, natural hands, and body control.
The top blocking prospects
Michael Mayer, Notre Dame, 6-foot-5, 257
One of the top tight end options in this class, Mayer is a true TE-Y (capable of lining up inline or in the slot) and is just as impactful stretching the field as he is blocking. One of the cleanest blockers in this draft cycle, Mayer pursues his target with aggression and aims to bury them. The biggest obstacle to Mayer is cost, as he is currently projected to go off the board in the first round.
Darnell Washington, Georgia, 6-foot-7, 280
With rare size for the position, Washington can engulf defenders as a blocker, especially in the run game, as well as present a massive target for his quarterback. He is still developing his game—for example, his height can lead to waist bending at times—but the intangibles are enticing enough that he seems headed toward being at least a top-50 pick, and a potential first-rounder.
Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State, 6-foot-5, 255
A balanced tight end who can contribute as a pass catcher and physically strong run blocker, Kraft latches on and drives defenders in space. His small-school experience will give him a slightly longer learning curve, and some technical flaws show up when blocking inline, but all his areas that need polish are easily correctable. Those minor issues likely push him into Day 2, but he has as much upside as any tight end in this class.
Luke Schoonmaker, Michigan, 6-foot-5, 250
Schoonmaker might represent the best combination of value and skill set for what the Lions are looking for at the position. He’s a tremendous blocker and a reliable—yet, not flashy—pass catcher, with enough upside to develop into an average NFL starter with time. He’s probably not going to be considered in the top 50 or 60 picks, like several others on this list, but he has top-100 appeal and could be an option in the third round.
Payne Durham, Purdue, 6-foot-5, 255
A sound blocker who should get better as he adds NFL muscle, Durham is a short-yardage passing option who would fit into a TE2 role as an inline or TE-Y option. He’s tough and has a grinder mentality, but his inability to create separation in the passing game will probably put his stock firmly on Day 3.
Noah Gindorff, North Dakota State, 6-foot-6, 266
Like Durham, Gindorff is a technically sound blocker who is limited as an athletic pass catcher, which puts his stock on Day 3. I have Gindorff a tick lower on my board because he has some medicals that need to be cleared—an ankle injury limited him the past two seasons.
Brayden Willis, Oklahoma, 6-foot-3, 244
Undersized but more than willing to block inline and in space, Willis is an upside player who is borderline draftable. With no seventh-round pick in this year’s draft, Willis is a name to watch as a priority free agent if he doesn’t hear his name called on Day 3.
Other top 100 prospects
Luke Musgrave, Oregon State, 6-foot-6, 255
Tremendous combination of size, speed, and athleticism, Musgrave reportedly broke the 20-mile-per-hour speed mark at the Senior Bowl. He is an above-average route runner and pass catcher, Musgrave will be high on a lot of teams' boards—he should get legitimate first-round consideration—but his blocking skills need work, as he tends to get stagnant with his feet instead of driving through the defender.
Dalton Kincaid, Utah, 6-foot-4, 241
Kincaid’s pass catching skills are among the top in the class—check out his game against USC this season—and he can be a Day 1 starter as a TE-F (primarily out of the slot). He is a willing blocker but he needs to make major strides in this area for him to be considered a complete tight end.
Sam LaPorta, Iowa, 6-foot-4, 250
A balanced tight end who does his best work after the ball is in his hands. He can line up all over the field and is a competitive blocker, but he lacks the ability to sustain blocks which could be an issue for a run-first team. He is likely an option on Day 2 and will need to show improvement—especially as a blocker for Detroit—in order to earn a starting role.