Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia speaks to the media at the NFL combine on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Indianapolis. Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
As deep of an NFL draft as it is at tight end this year, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said the drop off from the top three prospects to the rest of the group is steep enough that the Detroit Lions should seriously consider taking Iowa's T.J. Hockenson in the first round.
"Sometimes you have to look at the combination of picks. What’s the pairing?" McShay said in a conference call Tuesday. "So if I go with a defensive end at eight, I’m then getting a tight end who’s the fourth- or fifth-best tight end at 43, and the drop off from Irv Smith, Noah Fant and Hockenson to Tight End 4 and Tight End 5 is so severe and significant compared to what the drop off is from Defensive End No. 2 or 3, to the fifth or sixth guy."
McShay gave Hockenson to the Lions in his latest mock draft, and paired that selection with Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, the NCAA career sack leader, in Round 2.
Hockenson is widely considered the best tight end in this year's draft, a dual-threat weapon who's equally adept blocking inline and catching passes sprinting downfield.
Fant, Hockenson's former Iowa teammate who reportedly visited the Lions this week, and Alabama's Smith also are considered probable first-round picks, though neither is as complete a player as Hockenson.
Beyond that trio, Dawson Knox of Ole Miss, Jace Sternberger of Texas A&M and Kahale Warring of San Diego State are among the tight ends in the next tier, and McShay said he considers all three third-round talents.
The Lions, who also hosted Sternberger and Washington tight end Drew Sample on pre-draft visits, signed Jesse James to a four-year, $28.5 million contract in free agency and aren't in dire need of a tight end, but the position still stands out as one of need.
James has never had more than 43 catches in a season and the other tight ends on the Lions roster — Michael Roberts, Logan Thomas and Jerome Cunningham — have 40 career catches among them.
At defensive end, the Lions have room to add a rookie even after spending big on Trey Flowers in free agency and re-signing Romeo Okwara as a restricted free agent.
McShay said Nick Bosa, Rashan Gary, Montez Sweat and Clelin Ferrell are first-round prospects at the position (with Josh Allen and Brian Burns projecting better as outside linebackers), while players like Ferguson, Michigan's Chase Winovich, Boston College's Zach Allen and TCU's L.J. Collier could come off the board on Day 2.
"So I think the drop off is pretty significant at tight end as compared to that defensive front," McShay said.
NFL Network reported Tuesday that Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean made a pre-draft visit to the Lions. Dean, 6 feet 1, ran the second fastest 40-yard dash at last month's NFL combine in 4.3 seconds. He has a long history of knee problems and is considered a potential Day 3 draft pick.