Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2021 NFL draft. This is the third in an eight-part series.
Wide receiver/tight end
The Lions are three-quarters of the way through overhauling a receiving corps that lost its top four options from 2020, but have work to do in what appears to be a deep receiver draft. Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman signed one-year deals in free agency and stand, for now, as the team’s No. 1 and 2 receivers. Neither is a No. 1 wideout, however — or maybe even a No. 2 — and both have injury concerns. Quintez Cephus is the Lions’ top returning receiver, while newcomers Kalif Raymond and Damion Ratley are among those competing for jobs.
The Lions could spend a first-round pick on a pass catcher — a receiver or tight end — that would be a long-term building block for this offense. If they choose to go a different direction with the No. 7 overall pick, they almost certainly will add a receiver on Day 2.
BIRKETT: Why Lions could buck recent history and go for a WR at No. 7 in NFL draft
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At tight end, T.J. Hockenson is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he caught 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. Entering his third season, Hockenson is still learning the nuances as a route runner and blocker. Josh Hill will be the Lions’ No. 2 tight end, though he has done most of his damage as a blocker during his career. Hunter Bryant played sparingly because of injury as a rookie after a promising training camp, and the Lions’ No. 3 tight end job will be up for grabs.
On the roster: WR —Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond, Damion Ratley, Geronimo Allison, Victor Bolden, Tom Kennedy. TE —T.J. Hockenson, Josh Hill, Hunter Bryant, Alize Mack, Hunter Thedford.
Top 3 WR prospects: 1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU; 2. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama; 3. DeVonta Smith, Alabama. Top 3 TE prospects: 1. Kyle Pitts, Florida; Pat Freiermuth, Penn State; Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame.
Other players with Michigan ties: WR — D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan; Nico Collins, Michigan. TE — Nick Eubanks, Michigan.
Day 3 sleeper: WR — Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC. TE — Briley Moore, Kansas State.
Recent Lions draft picks at WR: 2020 — Quintez Cephus (5th round). 2019 — Travis Fulgham (6th round). 2018 — None. 2017 — Kenny Golladay (3rd round). 2016 — None.
Recent Lions draft picks at TE: 2020 — None. 2019 — T.J. Hockenson (1st round), Isaac Nauta (7th round). 2018 — None. 2017 — Michael Roberts (4th round). 2016-None.
JEFF SEIDEL: Lions must stay away from OL or WR in draft, get playmaker on defense instead
The NFL has seen an influx of good young receivers in recent years, and this draft is about to bring another wave of talent to the position. Mel Kiper Jr. said earlier this month he has around 40 receivers with draftable grades, and there are three receivers and one tight end who are consensus top-10 talents. Chase is the best pass catcher in the draft, capable of overpowering defensive backs or running by them. He opted out of the 2020 season, but was the best receiver in college football as a sophomore. Alabama teammates Waddle and Smith are next in line. Waddle is a talented return man and blazing fast slot receiver who should come off the board in the 6-16 range. Smith, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is the most polished route runner available, though his slender frame could drop him out of the top 10.
There is a distinct gap between Chase, Waddle, Smith and everyone else at the position, but a dozen or so receivers could go in the first 60 picks. Eskridge, one of the most electric receivers in the draft, is a probable Day 2 selection, as is Collins, a 2020 opt-out who has rare size in a draft deep in slot talent. Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz offers speed, Purdue’s Rondale Moore is dynamite, Florida’s Kadarius Toney is another slot weapon and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman is a polished route runner who is strong after the catch.
BIRKETT: Florida’s Kyle Pitts is ‘a rare dude;’ don’t be surprised if Lions draft him at 7
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Some NFL teams, including the Lions, may shy away from taking a receiver early because the draft is so deep at the position, which is not the case at tight end. Outside of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Pitts might be the most talented player in the draft. He runs a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, has a nearly 8-foot wingspan and has drawn comparisons to Calvin Johnson, only he will line up as a tight end in the NFL. Pitts probably won’t make it to the Lions’ pick at No. 7, and there are only a handful of other tight ends worth taking in the first three rounds. Any team that needs help at the position would be wise to grab Freiermuth, Tremble or Boston College’s Hunter Long on Day 2, or stand down till later in the draft when it can roll the dice on a one-dimensional player or two-year project.
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.