Florida TE Kyle Pitts is ‘a rare dude;’ don’t be surprised if Detroit Lions draft him at 7

Detroit Free Press

The last thing the Detroit Lions need is another tight end.

T.J. Hockenson is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Josh Hill is a productive veteran, and the value of the position does not merit a top-10 pick, let alone one for the third time in seven years.

But Kyle Pitts is different, and that’s why I have him going to the Lions at No. 7 in my latest mock draft.

Pitts, the Florida star who had 770 yards receiving and a team-high 12 touchdowns last season, is the best tight end to enter the NFL since Vernon Davis 15 years ago, and one of the draft’s top prospects overall.

BIRKETT: Did Lions get better or worse this offseason? Depends on your point of view

He has suction cups for hands. He’s expected to run in the 4.4-second range at his pro day next week. He’s a mismatch every time he steps on the field.

“I think you can make a strong case he’s the best player in the draft,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said earlier this month. “I’m watching these corners with first-, second-, third-round draft grades in the SEC, and they can’t cover the guy. So you split him out, and I think if he was just in this draft as an X receiver, he’s a top-10 or 15 pick if you never even watched him put his hand in the ground. At that size, to be able to get in and out like he does is pretty rare, to turn guys inside out.”

I still am all aboard the quarterback train for the Lions at No. 7 – if one is there worth taking. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence will be gone by then, and in my updated mock draft, I have BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance all going in the first six picks, too.

After Lawrence, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell and LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase are the best prospects available, on par with Pitts when it comes to grade and a notch above because of the positions they play.

Alabama receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith and Wilson, Fields and Lance are the other top-tier prospects in this year’s draft.

READ: Why small stature is not an issue for Alabama WR and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith

But I gave Pitts to the Lions in my latest mock because of what he can do on the field and what Lions coach Dan Campbell – a tight end in his playing days – has said off it.

Campbell, in his introductory news conference, stressed the importance of creating mismatches on offense, of putting “our best on your worst,” something Pitts would allow him to do as well as anyone.

Split Pitts out wide and he can overpower cornerbacks. Attach him to the line of scrimmage and he can outrun safeties and linebackers. Play him alongside Hockenson and defenses will find themselves in a bind when it comes to the personnel they deploy.

Jeremiah called Pitts “a rare dude” and said he could have a Travis Kelce-like impact early in his NFL career. Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end, finished second in the NFL in receiving last season with 1,416 yards.

“I think he can emerge as the best tight end in the National Football League,” Jeremiah said. “He’s got that type of dynamic ability.”

Players of that caliber, while no guarantee of future team success (see the Barry Sanders- and Calvin Johnson-era Lions), are long-term building blocks and something the Lions lack on their roster.

Frank Ragnow is a top-three or so center in the NFL, but no other current Lions fit that bill at their respective positions. Taylor Decker is coming off his best season, but not quite in that small group of consensus best left tackles in the game. Hockenson has enormous potential at tight end, but Pitts is a different breed of player – one whose impact could be felt many ways down the road.

ANALYSIS: With Jared Goff, it’s hard to see Lions drafting a QB with No. 7 pick

In theory, the Lions would build their offense to resemble what the New England Patriots had with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and what coach Bill Belichick is trying to replicate now with the free agent signings of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

And in theory, Pitts would give the Lions more financial flexibility than taking a receiver at the same position. Kelce, one of the top two tight ends in the NFL, recently signed a contract extension worth $14 million per season. Kenny Golladay, a top-10 or 15 receiver who the Lions did not think was worth keeping for a second contract, got $18 million a year from the New York Giants.

My ideal recipe for building a team would be to surround a top-flight quarterback with a dependable offensive line, add size and speed at the receiver position and counter that with a ferocious defense.

There is not a defensive player worth taking at seven. I don’t see Sewell getting past the Cincinnati Bengals. And all the top quarterbacks are gone.

Penn State LB Micah Parsons wows at pro day: ‘I’m the most versatile player in this class’ ]

In this scenario, the Lions’ pick comes down to Pitts and the Alabama receivers, and as much as it might pain fans to hear it, Campbell seems intrigued by the notion of adding another tight end in Detroit.

“I think big skill is hard to find, if I’m being honest with you, and I think it’s a hard matchup for defenses,” he said earlier in March. “When you have a guy that you feel like can win his one-on-ones, I don’t care what he plays, those guys are intriguing, man. When you have guys on your roster that you know the defense is like spending extra time on all week, that’s who they’re worried about, I mean those guys, that’s kind of the type of guys you’re looking for.”

In Pitts, that’s the kind of guy the Lions would get.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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