Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Tight Ends

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Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Tight Ends
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

I’m getting ready for my daily visits to the Detroit Lions' HQ and training facility in Allen Park, Mich. for training camp. The anticipation is building. The questions are piling up. The competition looks keen for several roster spots.

This series of articles offers analysis and opinion on the current state of every unit on the roster. This will enable us to focus on the players' performances during training camp with regard to how and where they fit into the Lions' plans.

Man, I’m ready for some football!

If ever there was a right place and a right time to have an embarrassment of riches on an offensive unit, you have to admit that the Detroit Lions have exactly that in their tight ends.

Lions fans have been watching the Aaron Hernandez situation in New England with great interest for good reason: The Patriots, who released Hernandez, will be in the market for a tight end. Detroit has two who will be free agents next season in Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

The Lions also have some needs, most notably at outside linebacker, where the Patriots are flush with talent in 3-4 OLBs Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich and the up-and-coming Dont’a Hightower, who can play ILB or OLB in a 4-3 defense.

Memo to Detroit GM Martin Mayhew:

Make the call, Mr. Mayhew. Make the bloody call!

Speaking of Aaron Hernandez, according to the team's official website, the New England Patriots will be offering fans who own a Hernandez jersey the chance to trade it in for another jersey of their choice. Gee! Shouldn't the Lions do no less for their fans who bought Titus Young jerseys?

Memo to Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand:

Make the offer!

The 2012 Lions season was the nadir of the current regime in every respect. An anomalous phenomena. A fluke. A team returning 21 of 22 starters created an environment of haves and have-nots that stifled competition and created a malaise that permeated throughout every unit on the team with the exception of the defensive backs, who were in their perennial state of turmoil.

Even the fans were flat. Yeah, I’m talking to you!

What was acutely disturbing was the indifferent play of the tight ends. This was more than a statistical hiccup. It was a horrid exhibition of busted routes, dropped passes, fumbles and intercepted passes that we suffered through week after week.

Heads had to roll, and tight ends coach Tim Lappano was the first to go.

Wait a minute! Lappano was moved over to the receivers coaching position vacated by the fired Shawn Jefferson. It was Jefferson, you’ll remember, who went ballistic on his boss, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, after Titus Young decided to run his own plays and call his own number.

Lappano was replaced by Bobby Johnson, who was fired by the worst team in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars. A head-scratcher of a move if ever I saw one.

Tight end Will Heller, the reliable blocking specialist and accidental receiving option, wasn’t offered a contract after the 2012 season and remains a free agent. Pro Football Focus Premium Stats (subscription required) graded Heller higher than Scheffler and Pettigrew.

Letting no good deed go unpunished, the Lions let Heller go and drafted Michael Williams in the seventh round (211th overall) of this year’s draft and signed the mysteriously undrafted Joseph Fauria as a rookie free agent.

OK, enough screwing around! Here’s your 2013 edition of the Lions tight ends. As usual, I’ll link you to the current roster for a reference.

Note: Statistics provided by Pro Football Focus Premium Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise stated.

 

Brandon Pettigrew

Dave Reginek/Getty Images

I wonder if Pettigrew needed to be put on suicide watch after having the worst season of his career in 2012. Four fumbles (one went for a 72-yard touchdown and another occurred in OT), nine dropped balls and two interceptions that PFF indicates were the fault of Pettigrew, and not the QB.

Pettigrew fought a high ankle sprain all last season and sat out two games.

There was one stat that PFF’s 57th-ranked TE could take solace in: He was flagged only twice.

Despite the horrible year that Pettigrew (not to mention we fans) suffered through in 2012, he remains an extremely important weapon on Detroit’s offense. At times, Pettigrew can dominate defenders as an all-purpose tight end.

2013 is a contract year for Pettigrew. We can only hope that he will have the kind of season that will make it tough not to re-sign him in 2014. The only thing keeping him from being the best tight end in the NFL is himself.


Tony Scheffler

Tom Lynn/Getty Images

No other high-profile Lions player looks more expendable than Scheffler. That’s not a harsh criticism so much as it is, well…a harsh observation.

Scheffler had a 2012 that was unforgettable, to say the least. As if Pettigrew’s season wasn’t bad enough, Scheffler decided to take the year off. Yeah, he could have phoned it in, and he better well know it.

Scheffler’s slide into mediocrity included a plethora of busted routes, six dropped passes and a whopping six interceptions that resulted on his 70 targets.

Scheffler managed to score one touchdown. We would rather have suffered through several repetitions of that goofy TD dance that we laughed at six times in 2011.

End rant.

2013 is also a contract year for Scheffler. If he can be traded for value, Scheffler should be traded now rather than losing him without compensation as an unrestricted free agent in 2014.

Make that call, Mayhew!


Michael Williams

Butch Dill/Getty Images

Williams might have been the best value pick the Lions made in this year’s draft. A draft which could go down as the greatest tight end draft class of all time.

I concur with this NFL.com analysis, but can anybody tell me what “Flashes good hands” means? Like “He can make himself small,” this is another ambiguous cliché bandied about by draftniks who haven’t done their homework.

Williams comes from an Alabama program where excellence is a virtue. Blocking for the likes of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, Williams was nothing short of sensational. Beyond sealing the edge, Williams also knew when to break contact and get after a defender in the second level.

Williams, my friends, is a devastating run-blocker. He first came to my attention while breaking down “All 22s” film on running back Mark Ingram in 2011, who had his hand glued to Williams’ back as he destroyed defenders.

Then came Trent Richardson, who was by far the superior all-purpose back. Once again, the RB’s hand was always on Williams’ back as Richardson gashed defenses almost at will.

If you cue up Youtube highlights on Ingram and Richardson, you will have the Michael Williams highlight reels.

Some have speculated that the 6'5", 278-pound Williams could easily add the weight needed to become an offensive tackle prospect. They’re right, but Williams’ hands are better than that “flash” spoken of in that hoary old draftnik cliché.

Williams wasn’t used much in ‘Bama’s passing game until receiving TE Brad Smelly left for the NFL with Richardson in 2012. Having a rather average QB in A.J. McCarron didn’t help, nor did the continuous “run at will” offense led by phenom Eddie Lacey and T.J. Yeldon.

Despite this, Williams hauled in 24 catches for 183 yards and four TDs. Williams used his size to his advantage, screening defenders and making all the catches that showed some nice range.

We don’t have a large enough sample of Williams the receiver to judge his route-running or his ability to get in and out of his breaks. His hands, however, are too good to waste as a tackle.


Joseph Fauria

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Fauria thrived primarily as a red-zone threat and a receiver who can move the chains. He’s slow and won’t make much yardage after contact. His catch radius is roughly equal to Calvin Johnson’s, and he loves to go up for jump balls. Any separation achieved by Fauria is vertical, but he uses short, choppy footwork to get into and out of his breaks. Fauria runs disciplined routes that QBs love.

Prior to the 2012 college season, Fauria was a consensus top-30 draft pick on draftnik community big boards, but a lack of targets as a situational tight end caused the slippage that found him going undrafted.

If Fauria has a strong camp, the Lions will have a dilemma of a positive nature: whether to keep four tight ends on the roster instead of the customary three.

Considering that both Pettigrew and Scheffler will be unrestricted free agents next season, and that neither Williams nor Fauria are likely to clear waivers, a roster move looks like a very real possibility.


Matt Veldman

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Who is Matt Veldman? And what is the nature of his game?

Veldman was an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Jaguars in 2012. He went on the IR prior to the Jags’ final preseason game and was subsequently released.

Veldman’s only NFL game experience came in the 2012 preseason finale. He caught two passes good for 27 yards, including one 21-yarder. Unfortunately, Veldman suffered a torn MCL on the second catch, according to Jacksonville.com.

My Jaguars spies…OK, spy…OK, my buddy whom I owe a dinner to tells me that Veldman was having a great camp and looked like a keeper. Decent blocker, but more of a receiving TE with nice size (6’5”, 255 lbs) and nice range.

In desperation, I tried to order up the All-22s from Veldman's alma mater, North Dakota State. The Bison’s assistant athletic director asked, “What’s an All-22s?”

With no film on Veldman, your guess is as good as mine as to what the nature of his game really is.


Conclusions

The tight end unit will have to prove that 2012 was a fluke more so than any other unit on the team. Pettigrew and Scheffler will be playing for contracts and should bounce back if for no other reason. It can’t get worse, can it?

The two intriguing newcomers, Michael Williams and “Big” Joe Fauria, have similar skill sets to Pettigrew and Scheffler. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Neither Williams nor Fauria will last this season on the practice squad.

Will the Lions break with tradition and keep a fourth tight end on the roster?

Will the Lions trade one of their tight ends?


Next Up: The Wide Receivers

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