The Detroit Lions possess an abundance of talent and enviable depth at tight end. Yet how all that talent fits together and will function in the new offense remains a bit of a mystery.
Just two months ago there were many questions surrounding the position. Erstwhile starter Brandon Pettigrew was an unrestricted free agent shopping his wares to other teams. Undrafted rookie touchdown machine Joseph Fauria sat atop the depth chart with his 18 career receptions.
The only other tight end on the roster at that point was Michael Williams, a 2013 seventh-round pick who missed his entire rookie season with a hand injury. He was seen as primarily a blocking specialist and limited contributor, at best.
My how things have changed!
Pettigrew somewhat unexpectedly re-signed with the Lions after his dalliances with some other teams failed to consummate. According to some sources, including Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Pettigrew was thought certain to sign elsewhere:
I'm told free-agent TE Brandon Pettigrew will have a deal in place with a team shortly. #nyj— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) March 13, 2014
Instead, the man derisively known as Droptimus Prime to Lions fans cleverly playing off Calvin Johnson's Megatron moniker is back in Detroit.
The role for Pettigrew is likely to change, as the coaching staff and offensive scheme have changed too. New head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi both come from systems (Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints, respectively) where the offense frequently deployed two tight ends.
His new role will be more of a blocker, the role Ben Watson played for the Saints last season. The emphasis is on lining up as a traditional in-line tight end and helping the offensive tackle in pass protection.
He'll still get some targets on plays where he chips and releases, or feigns the block and tries to explode past the deceived linebacker. Here's a fairly typical Watson reception from last year, an eight-yard gain from New Orleans' Week 15 loss to St. Louis.
Graham is lined up in the wider slot near the bottom, while Watson (circled in yellow) is in a short flex. The purpose of sliding him out from the line is to get the linebacker to declare the coverage.
Watson is prepared to chip block if the outside backer rushes, but instead the linebacker meekly drifts out into coverage. The tight end quickly slants inside and secures the catch a few steps in front of the middle linebacker, picking up the first down.
Expect to see a lot of this from the 20th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. This sort of role plays well to his skills. Yet his overall numbers are likely to continue a decline that began in 2012.
Here is what Pettigrew did in Detroit, as well as what Watson produced for the Saints in what figures to be the veteran Lions' role, in 2013:
Pro Football Focus
Just when everyone started getting comfortable with Pettigrew coming back, general manager Martin Mayhew rocked the boat with a tsunami of a talent in Eric Ebron. Mayhew made the North Carolina stud the 10th overall pick in May's draft.
Ebron will fill the flexed end role to Pettigrew's in-line blocker. It's a hybrid wide receiver/tight end position that Jimmy Graham has starred in for the Saints. The cocksure rookie doesn't quite have Graham's ceiling or speed, but in Detroit he'll get to prove he's a very reasonable facsimile.
Volumes have been written about Ebron's expected role and productivity in Detroit. A couple of very detailed ones include this one from B/R's Zach Kruse and this one from Ashley Dunkak of CBS Detroit. Dunkak's piece includes this informative quote from Lombardi on his rookie toy:
He’s going to line up all over the place. You’re going to have to find him. That’s kind of one of our goals is to not be predictable for defenses. We don’t want them to say, ‘All right, Calvin’s always here. We know how to deal with it.’
Look for Ebron to finish no lower than third on the Lions in receptions, yards and targets as the versatile chess piece Lombardi uses to create matchup advantages across the field.
Then there's Fauria, who so briefly looked like he could wind up being the starting tight end. The tall UCLA product certainly looked capable of stepping up at the end of his rookie campaign, when he started in place of the injured Pettigrew.
Yet it's best for all parties involved that the touchdown dance machine sticks to a more limited role. After all, he did catch just 18 passes. In addition, he's not much above average in terms of either speed or strength; his athletic limitations would be exacerbated by playing more.
Of course, during his Bruins tenure, Fauria showed he could chip and slip quite nicely too. Check out this play from his final season in the NCAA:
For the most part, Fauria will continue to see action primarily in short-yardage situations and the red zone. This will likely come at Pettigrew's expense, and for the fantasy football enthusiasts, it means Fauria should probably be drafted before Pettigrew.
It's not out of the question the Lions run some packages with three tight ends in the game. Ebron's versatility enables this sort of creativity. There will likely be instances where Ebron and Pettigrew are both in the game but neither lined up in-line, too.
The Lions are expected to keep a fourth tight end on the practice squad. It won't be Williams, however; the 2013 seventh-round pick from Alabama switched to offensive tackle this offseason. Undrafted players Jordan Thompson and Jacob Maxwell will battle for that spot, with Thompson having the early edge thanks to his ability to fill in as a long snapper.
What was so recently a barren patch suddenly blossomed with talent, as the Lions now have three tight ends who are eminently capable of starting for any number of teams. Ebron has star potential, while Pettigrew and Fauria both capably fill valuable roles in the Lions offense.