Congratulations, you’ve made it this far! You’re part of an elite group of people who chose to read the article instead of reacting on social media to the headline. Chances are, you’re at least intrigued to see what kind of argument can be made for the Detroit Lions to draft yet another tight end in the first round—or you’re here to remind yourself that in the past decade, both Eric Ebron and T.J. Hockenson came and went without a second contract in Detroit.
It’s not an easy case to make given Detroit’s recent track record with tight ends, but somebody has to do it—especially when that player is Georgia’s Darnell Washington.
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What makes Darnell Washington a top tight end prospect
To put it plainly, Washington isn’t the name atop many draft evaluator’s lists at tight end because his value is entirely scheme-dependent. He’s ranked anywhere from the early-to-late 30s by various draft analysts and is commonly viewed as a fringe first-round pick. But for the Lions, they very well could have Washington ranked higher on their own board.
Georgia TE Darnell Washington is an absolute beast…— TPL Georgia (@TPLGeorgia) April 25, 2023
6'6" 264 pounds
Ran a 4.64 40 yard dash at the combine
11” Hands (2nd largest in combine history)
83 3/4 Wingspan (Largest TE wingspan in combine history) pic.twitter.com/7YPqivDb1Y
If you’re scanning the Georgia box scores from the 2022 college season, you’d be quick to notice Darnell Washington wasn’t the Bulldog's most productive pass catcher at the tight end position. Brock Bowers, a true sophomore last season, led the way for Georgia’s passing attack with 63 catches, 942 receiving yards, and seven touchdown receptions, and if it wasn’t for his class status, Bowers would be the top tight end prospect in this year’s draft class and is a projected to be a top-five pick in 2024.
With all of that being said, Bowers’ productivity as a pass catcher has left many wondering what Washington is capable of doing in that phase at the next level. After all, Washington’s contributions in the passing game at Georgia—45 catches, 774 receiving yards, and three touchdowns over 36 games—leave a lot to projection.
Darnell Washington leads this class of tight ends in career...— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 23, 2023
*takes a deep breath*
...yards per target average, depth-adjusted yards per target, yards per reception, missed tackles forced per reception, yards after the catch per reception, *and* explosive play rate.
If given the opportunity, Washington’s huge frame, enormous wingspan, and giant set of hands make him as big of a target as you’ll see in the NFL. Combined with his athleticism, a 9.87 relative athletic score (RAS) which places him 15 out of the 1043 tight ends since 1987, Washington will be plenty to challenge linebackers and safeties alike.
While Washington has plenty of upside as a pass catcher, he isn’t the focal point to build a team’s passing attack around. His career statistics at Georgia might be what most of his seasons look like in the NFL, as Washington’s ceiling will likely be a secondary option in a team’s passing attack, but that’s not a problem; his ability as a blocker makes Washington the exact kind of player who could unlock some dynamic possibilities in both the passing and the running game. Here’s The Athletic’s Dane Brugler on Washington’s blocking ability in this year’s edition of “The Beast”:
“dominant level ability as a run blocker, walling off lanes or latching and driving defenders from the play … controlled on backside and cross-formation blocks … comes to balance and squares up his target as a rangy lead blocker, destroying defensive backs to spring outside runs … looks to manhandle defenders, and his play personality matches his intimidating size...”
If Detroit can add, in the words of NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, “... a sixth offensive lineman in the run game and a moving billboard in the passing game,” it’s going to help the Lions accomplish their vision for a balanced, but powerful offense that can keep team’s guessing based on their personnel.
What Darnell Washington would bring to the Lions
I know this may be too early to pick a tight end for most people, but Washington is the kind of player that opens up so much in the playbook. Washington would be the “front door” to the offense Sean Payton was talking about when the New Orleans Saints lost Josh Hill to injury, which resulted in them having to shelve over 50 plays on their call sheet.
Remember when the Lions made signing Hill a priority in this regime’s first offseason? His retirement from football shortly thereafter left the Lions without the ability to be in 12 personnel as much as they probably wanted to be in Dan Campbell’s first couple of seasons. Detroit was in 12 personnel for just 12 percent of offensive snaps, 27th in the NFL in 2021, and 21 percent of offensive snaps in 2022, 22nd in the NFL. With James Mitchell having an opportunity to train instead of rehab this offseason, the Lions have one piece to the puzzle. If they were to add Washington, suddenly Detroit can live in 12 personnel and do what they want to do more than anything: establish the run to open up the passing game.
Football Outsiders puts out numbers of how often teams utilize a sixth offensive lineman, and though they have yet to publish numbers from 2022, Detroit was second in the NFL in 2021 with 114 offensive snaps utilizing six offensive linemen. From a rough count according to Pro Football Focus’ snap counts, the Lions had 101 snaps last season with six offensive linemen. Instead of lining up an extra lineman like Dan Skipper or Matt Nelson, Washington would instead provide the Lions with a legit pass-catching threat out of a jumbo set, further disguising their intentions to run or pass the ball.
Again, pick 18 might be too rich to take Washington, but rumors of the Lions looking to trade out of that spot are swirling. If Detroit could slide back in the first round to acquire more draft capital and get Washington somewhere in the 20s, suddenly it’s a bit easier to talk yourself into making this pick. In addition to the Lions hosting Washington for a top-30 visit, the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, and Dallas Cowboys are some other teams who had Washington in for top-30 visits, and they stand in between Detroit’s current picks at 18 and 48. It’s highly unlikely he makes it to Detroit’s first pick in the second round, but Holmes and Co. have the ability to maneuver around the board with their nine draft picks.
For Detroit, Washington is a player worth making a move on in the first round.