Lions NFL draft preview: Tight ends

The NFL draft is less than two weeks away, which means soon enough the Detroit Lions will have to reveal whether all of their Sammy Watkins attention and visits from Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had substance or were designed to throw everyone off.

But the draft will be more than just one round for the Lions, who will need to use the three days in May to build depth on a roster that is big on stars but small on players beyond the big names who can turn the Lions into a playoff team.

Every day up until the first day of the draft, we’ll look at a different position grouping and see what Detroit has and what the team could end up looking for during the 2014 draft.

Today continues with tight ends.

Previous position groups: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers

Players Lost: Dorin Dickerson (free agent)

Players Signed: Brandon Pettigrew (re-signed); Jordan Thompson (free agent, also a long snapper).

Players on the roster: Pettigrew; Joseph Fauria; Michael Williams; Matt Veldman; Thompson.

Draft priority: Medium-to-high

Potential Rounds: 1-4

Players who have visited or met with the Lions: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington; Eric Ebron, North Carolina; C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa.

Analysis: This is an interesting position for Detroit, mostly because the team re-signed Brandon Pettigrew in March. If the Lions had gone away from doing that, it would be pretty simple to forecast a tight end being drafted at No. 10 (likely Ebron) or with the second-round pick, which could be a multitude of different options.

By bringing back Pettigrew, it lessened the need for the position somewhat since there is now the dual-threat tight end (Pettigrew) and the red-zone threat tight end (Fauria) on the roster. Michael Williams, who was on injured reserve last season, is more of a blocker.

What the Lions do with this position next week will depend on what offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi believes he will need in the short term and down the road. Remember, he is used to working -- not as a coordinator, but as an offensive philosophy -- with Jimmy Graham, the game’s top tight end at the moment.

And as the importance of a featured running back has disappeared across the NFL the past few years, the premium on a tight end as a matchup conundrum for defensive coordinators has raised significantly.

This leaves an interesting question for Detroit. If Ebron is there at No. 10 -- and it isn’t a guarantee he will be, but it is definitely a possibility -- will the Lions take him hoping he can develop into Graham in a couple of years? If he does, what does that mean for the future of Fauria on the roster, as he would be the tight end most impacted by that pick unless he has increased his blocking ability significantly in the offseason.

If the Lions pass on Ebron, and they likely should unless they can’t trade down and aren’t enamored with Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, then the second or third round should offer some strong possibilities for them.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, perhaps more than Ebron, could end up being the star tight end of this class. He can block a bit, run routes, and has the basketball pedigree similar to stars Graham, Antonio Gates and Denver's Julius Thomas. He also has more football experience entering the league than those three, and could be the logical complement and eventual replacement for Pettigrew in two-to-three seasons.

If the Lions believe in Fauria’s development, Fiedorowicz could be a third-round option, but he was less of a receiver and more of a blocker in college. He has insisted, though, he could do both.

An intriguing option in the second or third round would be Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas. He could be a bit of a NFL project in that he has only played tight end for a couple of years, but he has great size, good hands and is already a capable blocker. As I wrote in February, he is potentially the last of a group of true dual-ability tight ends and could be drafted -- like Seferian-Jenkins -- as an eventual Pettigrew replacement.

Of all reasonable options, I’d take: Seferian-Jenkins in the second round or Niklas either in a trade-up in the late second or hope he’s there in Round 3. Those would be my two top targets at the position instead of Ebron for multiple reasons.

The Lions, as written over and over again here, need defense more than anything. There are massive questions about the depth and talent in the secondary, and though it might not appear this way for 2014, defensive tackle is going to be a position of need beginning in 2015. The Lions would be better off trading back to take a cornerback or even a receiver later in the first round.

Plus, Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas could both end up being better than Ebron in the pros.

Here’s my biggest issue with Ebron, and it is written in his draft profile on ESPN.com.

“Ball skills are not as good as perception. Makes some circus catches,” the profile writes. “Has long arms, shows adequate leaping ability and good body control to adjust. Hauls in high-percentage of away-from-frame opportunities.

“But too many focus drops on 'catchable' balls. Highest drop percentage (11 percent) in 2013 of all the top TE prospects.”

That last part is why the Lions could shy away from Ebron. Jim Caldwell and Lombardi have stressed catching the ball after Detroit had the highest drop rate in the NFL last season. And that profile reads a lot like the tight end the Lions already have on the roster -- Pettigrew -- as a player who makes the tough catch but sometimes drops easy, catchable balls.

For those reasons, Seferian-Jenkins or Niklas would be the wiser choices.

Possible targets: Ebron; Seferian-Jenkins; Niklas; Fiedorowicz; Jace Amaro, Texas Tech.