Why Brandon Pettigrew Hurts the Detroit Lions

Jeff RisdonContributor ISeptember 17, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew (87) has the ball knocked away by a Minnesota Vikings defender in the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not a negative person by nature. I can be cynical, skeptical, sarcastic and occasionally spiteful, but it really troubles me to take an absolute negative point of view on pretty much anything.

Which is why it pains me to say that it's unequivocally time for the Detroit Lions to pull the plug on Brandon Pettigrew.

Let's go back in time to when Pettigrew first came to Detroit. He the 20th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the centerpiece booty of the lopsided Roy Williams trade to the Dallas Cowboys.

This was not a "reach" pick. According to a scouting report from USA Today, "Pettigrew is the only one [tight end] projected as a possible first-round pick," while Mel Kiper Jr. praised the former Oklahoma State Cowboy's blocking ability. 

Looking back to that rosier time, check out the post-draft afterglow of the Pettigrew selection from none other than former Detroit Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders, obtained from the 2009 Freep.com archives (subscription required):

He’s a complete tight end...He really is. The thing I like about him – his size, his speed, his strength. He doesn’t back down when it comes to blocking. He’s not intimidated. He has great hands—better hands than I thought—and great hand-eye. 

If there’s a negative right now, it would be, in my opinion, to learn to lower his body weight in terms of separating, coming out of breaks. It’s not so much speed as the ability to separate. He’s got all the tools.

From his description Sanders could have been talking about a modern version of himself—lofty praise that would inspire soaring expectations, especially within Detroit fans old enough to remember Sanders terrorizing the middle of NFL defenses. Pettigrew's enthusiasm for blocking and his massive presence as a pass-catching target provided real enthusiasm and support for the pick. 

Early on, Pettigrew proved worthy of the praise and draft status. After an uneven rookie season marked by injury issues, the big tight end began to blossom in 2010. Over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, he caught 154 passes for 1,499 yards and nine touchdowns. His efficiency was especially strong; those 154 receptions came on just 237 targets, according to fftoday.com, a catch rate of 65 percent. 

It's at that point the bloom came off the rose. Pettigrew showed up for the 2012 season heavier than before, and the extra weight robbed him of what little quickness he had. An ankle injury that sidelined him for two full games and parts of several others further limited Pettigrew's effectiveness. 

Somehow the ankle injury messed with Pettigrew's pass-catching skills. While he had some minor drop issues in his three years in the NFL, they spiked in 2012. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) credited him with nine in 2012, up from six in 2011, despite seeing 27 fewer targets.

Proving that the hands weren't just problematic with the ball in the air, Pettigrew fumbled four times as well.

Pettigrew had enough credit built up that there was genuine reason to think that 2012 was an anomaly. This 2013 campaign is a contract year, so there should be powerful incentive for Pettigrew to play with great focus and effectiveness. As Tim Twentyman pointed out back in May, Pettigrew lost weight and had a good relationship with new tight ends coach Bobby Johnson:

He says he’s dropped 10 pounds – going from 265 pounds to 255 -- in an attempt to get downfield more in the passing game and be a quicker player overall.

His focus this offseason has been to lose the weight, get back to the fundamentals and work on the parts of his game that were weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the lost weight and focus on fundamentals have not produced a more reliable player. Pettigrew continues to struggle mightily with his hands and concentration. 

There was one drop and a fumble in the opener against Minnesota. Given his meager production of two receptions for five yards, that's not a worthy trade-off.

In the loss to Arizona, Pettigrew had drops on consecutive plays in the third quarter. The first one was an admittedly tough catch, but he got both hands on it before Karlos Dansby helped pry it away. The next ball was a rocket from Stafford, but it hit an open Pettigrew in the hands, then the shoulder pads...and then the turf. 

While his blocking remains solid, the Lions' passing game needs him to be more than a short-range target with iffy hands. Pettigrew no longer seems to offer enough as a receiver to justify his blocking. That's the role of the third tight end on the roster, not the lead dog. 

This is why Pettigrew is hurting the team. Undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria has shown he can be a dynamic receiver. In both the preseason and the regular-season opener, Fauria consistently demonstrated reliable hands and an innate feel for how to get open. His release off the line is cleaner and quicker than Pettigrew's, too.

Tony Scheffler starts with Pettigrew in the Lions' base offense of a single back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. Scheffler has his own issues as a receiver, but he's a much better vertical threat than Pettigrew and commands more attention whether he splits wide or lines up in the slot. Whereas Scheffler draws safeties, opposing defenses typically cover Pettigrew with a single linebacker. 

Look at how limited Pettigrew is as a target. According to Pro Football Focus' "receptions by direction" chart, Pettigrew has just two targets beyond nine yards in 136 snaps. In 39 combined snaps this year, Fauria and Scheffler have the same total.

There is no reason for Pettigrew to be a featured receiving tight end in the Lions offense. Detroit has two tight ends who are definitively better receivers, yet Jim Schwartz played Fauria and Scheffler a combined 10 snaps in the loss to Arizona. In a game where the offense bogged down because it lacked a complementary threat to Calvin Johnson, sticking with Pettigrew hurt the team. 

Both Pettigrew and Scheffler will be free agents at the end of the season. It's easy to see the Lions opting to let both walk away.

Fauria capably fills Scheffler's role as the receiving specialist. He's not quite as fast but is more reliable and is a better blocker, though that's not saying much. Next season the Lions will have 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Williams back to fill the role as the blocking TE. Williams is on injured reserve after breaking his hand in the preseason, but he has strong potential as the in-line blocking presence that Pettigrew now fills.

Bleacher Report's draft crew had this assessment of Williams back on draft day.

The skills and abilities they attribute to Williams in that evaluation—limited receiving range but a strong blocking presence—is all that Pettigrew offers anymore. Williams will offer that for far less money, which is critical for a team saddled with the monstrous contracts of Stafford, Suh and Johnson. 

The Lions need speed, elusiveness and reliability in the passing game in order to be successful this year. Pettigrew offers none of those, yet he continues to play ahead of players who do possess those traits. If Fauria is going to be the future at tight end—and that sure appears to be the case—why not play him now and get him more valuable experience?

The odds of Pettigrew returning grow slimmer with every dropped pass and fumble. He is not helping them win games now, so by sticking with Pettigrew, the Lions are unwittingly hurting the progress of their own team.

It's hard to not be so negative about Pettigrew given the growing body of poor play.