Detroit Lions Hall of Fame RB Barry Sanders explains his thoughts on Kerryon Johnson and the Lions offense at the Super Bowl, Feb. 1, 2019 in Atlanta.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
They whiffed on Jimmy Graham, Trey Burton and every one of their other top tight-end targets last spring, and the Detroit Lions are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Be it through free agency or the NFL draft, Lions general manager Bob Quinn said at a fan forum for season-ticket holders on Monday that “the tight end position is definitely a priority for us” to upgrade this offseason.
“This is a position of need,” Quinn said. “We know that.”
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The Lions had fewer receptions from their tight ends last season (45) than every team but the Miami Dolphins.
Levine Toilolo led the group with 21 catches for 263 yards, but Luke Willson had career-lows of 13 catches and 87 yards receiving, Michael Roberts had just nine catches for 100 yards before going on season-ending injured reserve, and Hakeem Valles had two catches in three games with the team.
Toilolo and Willson are free agents who are not expected to return in 2019, while Valles finished last season on injured reserve with the New York Giants.
While this year’s free-agent class of tight ends is relatively thin – Jesse James and Jeff Heuerman are probably the best of the bunch – Quinn said “it’s a good year in the draft for tight ends.”
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“Actually, just (Monday) morning is when we went through the tight ends with our scouts and I’d say it’s a really good crop,” Quinn said. “There’s an unusual amount of underclassmen tight ends in this year’s draft, which really fit kind of what we’re looking for. So there’s numerous options there and also in free agency. You read our needs correctly.”
As many as three tight ends could go in the first round of April’s draft, though there does not appear to be a consensus No. 1 player at the position.
Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., the son of the former NFL tight end by the same name, and the Iowa duo of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson have all drawn first-round projections after leaving school early. All had at least 39 receptions last season.
Stanford’s Kaden Smith, UCLA’s Caleb Wilson, Boston College’s Tommy Sweeney and San Jose State’s Josh Oliver could be in the Day 2 mix.
The Lions probably won’t consider a tight end in the first round with the eighth overall pick, but their needs are so great at the position – they need a receiving threat to help stretch the field and a blocker to assists the run game – that they’ll have to consider all variety of players elsewhere in the draft and free agency.
“We went into last offseason, and I think I spoke about this in January, we made many efforts at signing everybody that was available on the street,” Quinn said. “And ultimately it came down to dollars and cents, and we didn’t get any of those top guys and we got the guys who we got, and some of those guys performed well for us.”
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