Detroit Lions tight end Joseph Fauria has already had five touchdowns to celebrate this season.
For the most part, Detroit Lions tight end Joseph Fauria has a typical stat line for an undrafted rookie. He has caught just seven passes for 66 yards through six games and has played in less than 20 percent (76-of-421) of his team’s offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That said, Fauria is also the leader among all NFL rookies with five receiving touchdowns.
All three NFL rookies with at least three receiving touchdowns thus far this season went undrafted—New England Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has four catches for points and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marlon Brown has three—but none has been more effective at making plays in the end zone, or had a more unique start to his NFL career, than Fauria.
Listed at 6'7" and 255 pounds, Fauria has immediately taken advantage of his size and athleticism to emerge as a red-zone receiving threat for the Lions.
While his ratio of touchdowns per overall receptions is certainly unusually high, there’s nothing unusual about a massive tight end catching touchdown passes.
Of the 10 players who have five receiving touchdown passes through the first six weeks of the season, five of them are tight ends. Four of those five—Julius Thomas (Denver Broncos), Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints), Jordan Cameron (Cleveland Browns) and Fauria—are at least 6'5" (the exception among the tight ends, Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, is listed at 6'3").
Fauria is not quite as explosive an athlete as Thomas, Graham and Cameron, who all started their collegiate athletic careers as Division I basketball players before transitioning to the gridiron. Nonetheless, he is making the entire NFL look foolish for allowing him to go undrafted, which came as a surprise to many in the first place.
Breaking Down Fauria’s Early Success in the End Zone
No one who followed Fauria’s career at UCLA should be surprised that he has made a name for himself in the NFL by catching touchdown passes. He accomplished that feat 20 times during his three-year career at UCLA, including 12 times during his senior season.
Given that, Fauria was projected to be selected somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (I personally graded him as a fourth-round pick and as the fifth-best tight end in the draft class). While he likely fell out of the draft due to subpar speed and blocking ability, his ability to take advantage of his tremendous size should have been enough to prompt a team to take a chance on his upside in the late rounds of the draft.
Instead, the Lions got lucky to land Fauria, a player who could have a big impact as a role player or potentially more than that for years to come, without even using a draft pick on him.
For now, Fauria is a role player taking advantage of the opportunities he gets. That was certainly the case Sunday versus the Cleveland Browns. With second-string tight end Tony Scheffler out due to a concussion, Fauria moved up to the No. 2 tight end role and played a season-high 24 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
He was targeted with three passes, and finished the day with three receiving touchdowns.
While Fauria struggles to separate from coverage running downfield routes, he excels at making plays on the ball in the air. This allows him to make plays in the end zone even when he is covered, because of his size advantage.
It isn’t hard to figure out why the NFL has trended toward tight ends who are big, tall and can jump high—they create mismatches for opposing defenses. That is exactly what Fauria has been for the Lions in red-zone situations this season.
The Lions immediately became creative with that mismatch in Week 1 when they lined Fauria up as a wide receiver on the right side of the field opposite Vikings cornerback Chris Cook at the 1-yard line.
The resulting touchdown seemed to be exactly what Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan drew up.
As you can see in the screenshots, Cook had Fauria covered about as well as he possibly could have. Unfortunately even Cook, one of the NFL’s biggest cornerbacks at 6’2” and 212 pounds, was overmatched by five inches and more than 40 pounds as Fauria high-pointed his touchdown catch perfectly.
The beauty of that mismatch for the Lions is they can keep exploiting it.
As long as Fauria is seeing single coverages on the outside against much smaller defensive backs, he should be able to continue boxing out his man in the end zone and keep making plays on the football. That makes quarterback Matthew Stafford’s job simple: Throw the ball high enough that Fauria can use his size and leaping ability to make the play where the defensive back cannot.
The Lions applied that logic in their game plan versus the Browns, going back to that exact same play twice for touchdowns.
In the first quarter, Fauria made a catch against defensive back Johnson Bademosi’s coverage for a one-yard touchdown.
Fauria’s second touchdown in a one-on-one matchup along the right sideline, this time against strong safety T.J. Ward, was his more impressive of those two touchdowns. On this fourth-quarter play, Ward actually established inside position against Fauria and got his arm in position to break up the pass, but Fauria imposed his size advantage once again to pull down a grab through Ward’s coverage for a 10-yard touchdown.
If the Lions want to continue to utilize that play, Fauria should continue to see plenty of single coverages. While defenses should certainly game-plan for Fauria as a red-zone threat, teams are also likely to be hesitant to throw double coverages against Fauria if Lions superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson is lined up on the opposite side of the field.
That said, even a double coverage is not always going to work against a player with Fauria’s vertical range. He proved that against the Washington Redskins in Week 3, when he made a five-yard touchdown between two defenders.
As Fauria broke in toward the end zone, two Redskins defenders had him well-covered, but as Fauria stopped his route in the middle of the end zone, both defenders overran the play slightly. That gave Fauria a split second of separation, which was all he needed to get in position to post up and make the leaping grab between the defenders, who converged back on him as he came down with the football.
Fauria’s forte is certainly his ability to post up in the end zone as a red-zone receiver. Of his nine total targets this season, six of them have been in the red zone. The two that were not touchdown catches, both also against the Redskins, each could have been a touchdown catch if not for inaccurate throws by Stafford.
But while Fauria is never going to have the downfield receiving and open-field playmaking ability of a Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates in their primes, he has also shown the ability to make plays as a downfield receiver up the seam, as he did for a 23-yard touchdown versus the Browns on Sunday.
Fauria’s greatest limitation as a downfield receiver is his lack of burst and open-field moves, as he struggles to separate from coverage as a result. That didn’t stop him on this play, however, from adjusting back to the throw in the air, making a tough catch between two defenders and falling back into the end zone for six points.
How The Lions Can Expand Fauria’s Role, and Should They?
After Sunday’s three-touchdown performance, the Lions have to seriously consider expanding Fauria’s role within the offense.
While Fauria may not be a consistent big-play threat as a downfield receiver, he can still make plays from anywhere on the field by imposing his size. Either way, he presents at least as much of a big-play threat as Scheffler and starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who have combined for as many plays of 20 yards or more (two) in 40 targets as Fauria has in nine.
What is really more likely to keep Fauria off the field is his blocking ability. He has performed better in that capacity than expected, however, and actually holds a slightly positive overall blocking grade (0.1) from Pro Football Focus this season.
Fauria has earned the right to more playing time with his performance early this season, and the only way to gauge how good he can truly be is to give him that opportunity.
He may end up getting that playing time by default. If Scheffler remains out for an extended period of time—season-ending injured reserve remains a possibility, according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com—Fauria should continue to see an increase in snaps as he moves up to the No. 2 spot on the tight end depth chart.
If Fauria ends up with more playing time one way or another, his other key to becoming more involved in the offense is to continue developing chemistry with Stafford.
That burden, however, falls mostly on Stafford to be aware of the talented rookie’s presence on the field.
At times this season, Stafford has been too locked in on getting the ball to Calvin Johnson that he has ignored the presence of a wide-open Fauria. This was especially noticeable in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, a game in which Fauria was not targeted once but got himself wide open on at least three routes and also had a favorable one-on-one matchup against Bears safety Chris Conte on another red-zone play.
One way or another, getting Fauria involved in the offense on a more regular basis should be a priority for Linehan, Stafford and head coach Jim Schwartz. Opposing defenses have had trouble stopping Fauria when the ball has been thrown his way this season. The Lions should force them to figure it out by continuing to throw the ball Fauria’s way and exploit mismatches, especially in the red zone.
For Fauria himself, the biggest challenge may be adding to his growing arsenal of touchdown dances.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Game Rewind with all illustrations added by the author firsthand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.