Lions 2021 draft preview: At tight end, Detroit could face tough choice with Kyle Pitts

The Lions already have the makings of a complete tight end room heading…

Lions 2021 draft preview: At tight end, Detroit could face tough choice with Kyle Pitts 1

Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Tight ends. 

► Current roster: T.J. Hockenson, Josh Hill, Hunter Bryant, Alize Mack, Hunter Thedford

► Short-term need: Two out of 10

► Long-term need: Seven out of 10

► Top prospects: Kyle Pitts

► Mid-round options: Pat Freiermuth, Hunter Long, Brevin Jordan

► Late-round considerations: Briley Moore-McKinney, Tre’ McKitty

► Analysis: The Lions already have the makings of a complete tight end room heading into the draft. 

Hockenson, a do-everything option, is just starting to live up to the potential that made him a top-10 pick a couple years back. In his second season, the former Iowa standout caught 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl honors.

There’s reason to believe that production will continue to trend upward in 2021, given he’s the most productive pass-catcher returning from last season and new quarterback Jared Goff has a history of effectively utilizing his tight ends. 

To complement Hockenson, the Lions added Hill in free agency. Following coach Dan Campbell from New Orleans, Hill will serve as a culture-building leader while providing the team with an above-average blocker.

Just don’t expect too much in the passing game. Hill has never caught more than 25 passes in a season and has averaged 15 receptions during his eight-year career. 

In terms of a developmental third tight end, the Lions have a couple intriguing options on the roster. Bryant, an undrafted free agent a year ago, isn’t much of a blocker but has a tool set that makes him a tough cover when operating out of the slot. The key to his success will be staying healthy, something he struggled with in recent years. 

Additionally, the team added Mack to the mix back in February. After a moderately productive college career at Notre Dame, the former top high school recruit has yet to find his footing in the pro ranks, but the physical gifts remain. 

If the Lions didn’t draft a tight end this year, no one would be surprised. But the team could face a difficult decision if Pitts is still on the board at No. 7. 

Pitts is far and away the best tight end in this class. Not only does he possess elite athleticism, his receiving skills are as refined as you’ll see for the position. Go back and watch the college tape and you’ll see route running that gave the top cornerbacks in the SEC fits. The cherry on top is Pitts didn’t drop a single pass last season. 

Many Lions fans will be irked at the idea of the team bucking conventional wisdom to select another tight end that early in the draft, but a pairing with Hockenson could be the most impactful tandem since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were destroying defenses for New England. 

If the Lions miss out or pass on Pitts, there’s little reason to believe they’d have interest in the second-tier options such as Long or Freiermuth. But on Day 3, there’s a possibility they could target a more appealing third option than Bryant or Mack. 

Moore-McKinney, for example, is an intriguing all-around talent who should be available the later rounds. A graduate transfer from Northern Iowa, he was a productive pass- catcher for the Panthers, tallying a team-high 536 receiving yards in 2018. 

After missing most of the 2019 season due to a shoulder injury, Moore-McKinney ended up at Kansas State, where he averaged 15.4 yards per catch while continuing to show above-average ability as a run blocker.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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