It doesn’t get brought up very often in the list of Detroit Lions needs this offseason, but tight end definitely merits inclusion. The Lions bring back Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson, who should be healthy and ready to roll once again. Free agent signee Garrett Griffin can handle the veteran blocking TE role, at least that’s the expectation. Griffin is on a one-year, veteran-minimum contract so that certainly doesn’t mean anything for the long-term team building.
The rest of the depth chart consists of undrafted rookies from a year ago (Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra) and some castoffs (Matt Sokol, Jared Pinkney) who have collectively never caught a single NFL pass. While the Lions subsisted a year ago by using an extra offensive tackle (primarily Will Holden, still unsigned) as a blocking tight end, it would be nice to get some youthful potential with experience at the position into the Lions pipeline. Hockenson is the only tight end under contractual control after 2022.
As with the rest of this series of identifying potential prospects of interest in each round of the draft, the purpose here isn’t to advocate for any one player. It’s to show the different options that could be available for Lions GM Brad Holmes and his staff to consider, and what caliber of player and positional depth looks like in this class.
Tight end is a little tougher. There isn’t a prospect worthy of consideration with any of the Lions’ first three picks (2, 32, 34). To keep the same format, consider the second-rounder listed here as the Lions’ pick at the top of the third. It seems very unlikely any tight ends are drafted by any team in the first 50 or so picks this year.
First round: None
That’s right. Reiterating what was said above: there isn’t a single tight end in the 2022 NFL draft worthy of even thinking about drafting in the first 32 picks.
Doesn’t mean one (or more) of the TEs in the class will not wind up as one of the 32 best NFL players from the 2022 draft when all is said and done, but none project there entering the draft.
2nd round: Trey McBride, Colorado State
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McBride is the most complete of the tight end prospects, and that helps separate him a little from the giant cluster of TEs in this class who should go between 40-140 overall. His speed — McBride ran in the middle 4.5s at the Rams’ pro day — is a good trump card too.
He can line up inline or flexed out, and McBride moves well enough to handle H-back and fullback duties in a pinch as well. The 6-foot-4 McBride has soft hands and consistently presents himself as a big target. Blocking is good, especially when he keeps his head up. His speed is very impressive but it’s not instant, and his agility and route running is only average for the position. McBride is a high-floor prospect who is ideally paired with another good TE to form a dynamic, versatile duo in 12 or 22 personnel.
3rd round: Isaiah Likely, Coastal Carolina
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Likely was recruited by the Chanticleers as a wide receiver, and his roots certainly show. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder has legit 4.5 40-yard dash speed and excellent hands. He’s at his best working the slot and attacking the seam and outside the numbers, and Likely is a very good runner after the catch.
While he gives effort as a blocker, it’s not his strong suit. Likely isn’t a guy who looks like he will win from an inline alignment in the NFL. For a good athlete, his footwork and routes can lack urgency too. The athletic testing revealed an average profile. But he’s the best big-play receiving TE prospect, something he flashed during Senior Bowl practices.
Bonus 3rd round: Jelani Woods, Virginia
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Because there isn’t a first-rounder, we’ll double up on the third round. And what better way to do that than with the most athletically gifted tight end prospect in eons, Jelani Woods from Virginia.
So why is Woods a middle-round prospect despite being the most elite athletic prospect ever at his position? He’s only been playing TE since 2017 when Oklahoma State switched him from quarterback. The route running, the blocking, the field awareness and even the mere act of catching the ball instead of throwing it are all very much works in progress.
Woods does have some impressive reps on film. The key is for him to continue to develop his TE skills and for the NFL team taking him to have patience through the inevitable growing pains. The athletic potential is the kind of upside teams will covet.
4th round: Greg Dulcich, UCLA
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It’s certainly possible Dulcich is gone before the Lions pick at No. 97 overall, but the draft stock of all these tight ends is tough to forecast. Based on his athletic profile and on-field results, Dulcich probably should be gone, but that’s what makes his potential so appealing if the hirsute Bruin is available.
Another converted wide receiver, Dulcich might be the most consistent route-runner in the TE class. His footwork, body control and ability to vary speeds get him reliable separation at all levels of the field. Dulcich quickly transitions from receiver to runner, too. He has enough speed to win down the field and create mismatches against LBs.
Alas, he’s the worst blocker of all the prospects listed here. There are times (see Stanford and Washington games) where Dulcich isn’t involved for long stretches and then fizzles when given a chance, too. Higher ceiling/lower floor prospect as a receiving TE.
5th round: Charlie Kolar, Iowa State
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Kolar is your high school football coach’s favorite tight end. He’s huge (6-foot-6.5 inches, 252 pounds) and presents himself as a big target. Kolar can chip the EDGE and release into a route very well. He’s a solid inline blocker and the best pass-blocking TE of all listed here.
Unfortunately for Kolar, he’s a relatively pedestrian athlete. Kolar runs long-legged routes and doesn’t have litheness in his hips or feet. He can be too tall as a blocker too, though he’s worked well at keeping his weight lower. Kolar could emerge as a very good red zone weapon and capable No. 2 TE.
6th round: Chigoziem Okonkwo, Maryland
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“Chig” is built more like a big running back than a tight end at 6-2 and 238 pounds. He’s a very toned, physical presence with good acceleration and excellent speed after the catch.
While he blocks relatively well on the move, Okonkwo isn’t a useful inline blocker or target-seeker. Maryland didn’t ask him to do much more than run to spots and wait for the ball, so his receiving skills lack refinement and diversity. The athletic potential is legit, albeit in a shorter frame than desired. Could be a real weapon on special teams and as an H-back utility role.
7th round: Daniel Bellinger, San Diego State
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Another Senior Bowl alum who played with Dulcich and Likely on the Lions-coached American roster in Mobile, Bellinger is a tenacious and technically efficient blocker. He can set up inline or as a move TE, but also has some juice as a potential full-time fullback. Bellinger reliably catches everything near him, but he’s not a threat to run away from the defense or create after the catch as well as most of his peers.
Bonus UDFA: Armani Rogers, Ohio
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Rogers is making the transformation from option QB at Ohio (and UNLV before that) to tight end. He’s not going to be drafted, but Rogers opened some eyes during Shrine Bowl practices at his new position.
Rogers is a complete project, but he’s got the athleticism and vision to work with. He holds the CFB record for the longest run ever by a quarterback:
He could be the next Logan Thomas with a couple of seasons of good coaching and development. Or he could get dumped after rookie minicamp and never be heard from again. Such is the life of a UDFA.