Onward and outward from the football, , to the tight ends we go . . .
John Owens: Some of you may remember this blast from the Millen past: a 6'-3", 255# TE out of Notre Dame, a fifth-round pick who contributed on and off for a few seasons. After that, he bounced around Chicago, Miami, Cleveland, and New Orleans, until getting re-signed by the Lions late last year. Owens is definitely a blocking-first tight end in a reciever's body, a guy who played both TE and DE in both high school and college. Owens is a hard worker, but is neither gifted athletically, nor blessed with great hands, nor a "third tackle" blocking down the line. Bottom line: just a guy.
Michael Gaines: Gaines, a bit of a beast at 6'-4", 277, was originally drafted by Carolina in the seventh round. Hailing from Central Florida University (Also Duante Culpepper's alma mater, if memory serves), Gaines was drafted by Carolina and saw occasional PT, culminating with 12 catches for 155 yards and two TDs in his third season. Still, Carolina let him walk, and Buffalo picked him up right at the start of the season. Despite waltzing in to a brand-new offense, Gaines got career highs in starts (14), receptions (25), and yards (215). With at least one reception in every game he played (15), it seemed like Gaines might be starting to reach his potential. So when the Bills released him and the Lions signed him, there was a bit of interest--could he be a diamond in the rough? One season, six starts, 23 catches and 260 yards later, the answer is "probably not". It's clear that he's a theoretically useful red zone target at that height, and has at least pretentions of being a two-way player. He's more gifted than Owens, but I don't know if he wants it as badly. Bottom line: Gaines is a nice physical talent with some upside. If the new offensive system actually uses the tight end position, he could develop into a good pass-catching #2 TE, or even a compelling red-zone option.
Casey Fitzsimmons: Oh, man. Somewhere, in an alternate Fan Wet Dream universe, Casey Fitsimmons was the Pro Bowl tight end on the Super Bowl-winning Lions. He and co-MVP Mike McMahon recorded an authentic early-80s Detroit techno redux of the Super Bowl Shuffle, with features by fellow Pro-Bowlers Scotty Anderson, David Kircus, Jon Bradley, Danny "Blue" Adams, and Greg Blue. Fitzsimmons hails from tiny Carroll College, an NAIA school in the middle of nowhere, Montana. His high school team was so small it played 8-man football, and Fitsimmons played WR, TE, DE, and LB for them at various times. Fitzsimmons was a sensation out of nowhere as a rookie in 2003. At 6'-4", 258#, Casey displayed unusual athletic talent and a nose for the end zone. Due to injuries, he was pressed into a starting role. He started 11 of 16 games, and hauled in 23 catches for 160 yards and 2 TDs. As we go into his seventh season in the NFL, he has yet to approach matching that kind of production. Part of this is due to fragility--he's missed several games due to injury or illness in almost every season, including 4 in 2008. Part of this is due to scheme; Martz's offenses really had no use for his talents. And part of it, unfortunately, must be chalked up to him. Bottom line: a pure recieving TE, and a fan favorite everyone would love to see reach his potential--but unless a miracle happens, he'll never be more than a great special teamer with a small but ardent set of fans.
SUMMARY: The cupboard is shockingly, alarmingly bare here. Three years of an offensive system where tight ends are almost completely vestigial have left the roster stripped of legitimate starting talent. All three of these players are theoretically useful as depth, but Scott Linehan has always made great use of TEs--Lions fans should recall being terrorized by Jim Kleinsasser, and of course there was the sensational story of Randy McMichael in Miami (and then St. Louis!). You can throw standout TE Brandon Pettigrew on the ten-man-long-list of "possibilites that would fill an need at 1.20", but I would look for a TE in the fourth or fifth round, possibly combined with a FA signing like soon-to-be-ex-Titan Bo Scaife.