Old Mother Hubbard: The Tight Ends

>> 4.27.2011

I’m on a breakneck schedule now, trying to wrap this series up before the draft . . . or free agency begins; whichever comes first! We move on to the tight ends, about whom we need another disclaimer: Pro Football Focus grades every TE as a complete package. Typically, if a TE is an impact receiver and a terrible blocker, fans still consider them an impact TE because that’s what we see, and what we can easily measure. Please remember, then that the TE “Pass” grade is not a synthesis of a tight end’s statistics, but a subjective grade of how they actually performed on each play, just like with the linemen and defenders.


The spread this produces is quite interesting: there’s a handful at the top who are good at both receiving and blocking, a handful at the bottom who aren’t good at anything, and a huge hodgepodge in the middle of guys with varying tool sets. At the top of the heap is Jason Witten with the 3rd-best receiving grade, 5th-best pass-blocking grade, and #1 run-blocking grade. The backmarker is Brandon Manumaleuna: 26th of 64 in receiving, 64th of 64 in pass-blocking, and 63rd of 64 in run-blocking.

The highest-rated Lions TE, of course is . . . Will Helller? Yes, with a Blutarskian 0.0 grade, Heller notched the best mark of any Lion TE (NFL average this year was –3.2). He was only thrown at five times, and somehow got dinged for a -0.4 receiving grade in those four plays (NFL average: +0.48). Still, he caught 80% of the balls thrown his way (4 out of 5), for 33 yards and a score.

Heller's primary role is as a blocker, though, and in that he did well. He was graded by PFF at +0.7 in pass blocking (average: 0.0), and +0.1 in run blocking (average: –3.5). So, compared to all TEs who got at least 25% of their team’s snaps (Heller didn’t qualify, only 169), Will Heller was a slightly-above average blocker, slightly better in the run than the pass.

Bottom Line: Will Heller is a good rotational blocker, who’s come up with a few nice catches in his time here. He should have a place on the roster for 2011, at least.

The second-best Lions TE in 2011, according to PFF grades, was Tony Scheffler. The former Western Michigan Bronco was the 21st-best tight end overall. He was a decent +1.2 in receiving, lower than I’d expected, but Heller’s equal in pass blocking at +0.7 (which I didn’t expect, 26th-best). His run blocking was notably worse than Heller’s, graded at –2.6—but that still outpaced the NFL average of –3.5, and slotted him  25th of 64.

Statistically, Scheffler had an up-and-down year. He was thrown at 66 times, and caught 45 of them--percentage-wise, matching the NFL average to the decimal (68.2). What surprised me was his low YpC average, just 8.4 (avg. 10.59). Scheffler is known as a downfield threat, but it seems he wasn’t used that way. His YAC suffered, too—just 4.3 AYaC, compared to the NFL average 5.0.

It’s known that Scheffler suffered a series of injuries throughout the year (concussion, shoulder, ribs), and something definitely seemed amiss with him. After a very strong showing in Weeks 3 and 4, where he hauled in a combined 13 passes for 123 yards (and received +1.3 and +1.4 grades), his production fell off the map. For ten weeks the only non-negative grade he got was a +0.3. He had a particularly awful stretch in weeks 6-10, turning in grades of –1.5, –1.8, –0.1, and a nasty –3.1 against Buffalo. Worse, though, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew found their role in the offense, and the quarterback carousel seemed to hit Scheffler’s numbers more than than anyone’s . . .

. . . I found an interesting little wrinkle, though: Tony Scheffler led all NFL TEs with 25% or more of their teams’ snaps in target-to-snap ratio. Scheffler was thrown to once every 6.3 snaps he played—meaning if he was on the field, he was a major part of the play. He seems to have a very specific niche in the offense, even if it isn’t what we expected.

Bottom Line: Tony Scheffler was signed to a three-year extension right after his great two-game stretch at the beginning of the season; he’ll likely be here through 2013. The player we saw in September was the same player we saw for years in Denver; I can’t believe that guy’s gone for good. Even if he is, “Diminished Scheffler” is a solid receiving TE, who blocks better than you think.

Now, stunningly, we come to the bottom of the list: the Lions’ #1 TE, Brandon Pettigrew. Let’s clear something up: Pro Football Focus does not grade on “upside.” They do not round up for “potential,” or “excitement.” They don’t even care about the name on the back of the jersey, except to correlate back to the data. All they care about is what a player does, and what Brandon Pettigrew did in 2010 is drop a hell of a lot of passes. 12, to be exact, on 103 targets. Dropping a pass every 8.6 targets gave him the third-most-buttery fingers of any TE with 20 or more targets . . . and a huge factor in his overall –8.0 grade (43rd/64).

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Pettigrew's receiving grade, -5.0, is the fourth-worst in the NFL. It turns out, though, that all that “He’ll be like a third tackle” hype actually does hold water: Pettigrew had the NFL’s 6th-best pass-block grade, a +2.3, and 16th-best run block grade, with +0.5.  Unfortunately, his ridiculous ten penalties assessed gave him the second-worst penalty grade in the NFL.

You wanna know something interesting, though? Even with his extremely high drop ratio, Pettigrew’s receiving percentage (% of targets caught) was actually slightly above average, 68.9 (avg. 68.2). Either his quarterbacks are throwing more accurate passes than everyone else—unlikely, given the Lions’ QB situation in 2010—or maybe, Pettigrew is like a range-y shortstop, making “errors” on balls other people wouldn’t even get to. Further,

Pettigrew’s game-to-game grades are wildly inconsistent—and unlike Scheffler or Cherilus or Sims, there’s no “everything was cool and then it all went bad.” Pettigrew’s grades swing from bad to good to bad to okay to terrible to outstanding to okay, with no rhyme or reason. After turning in a horrific –5.6 against Chicago in Week 13, where he got negative grades in every phase of the game, he thwomped Green Bay with a +3.0 overall, and positive grades in every phase of the game. There appears to be no rhyme or reason.

Bottom Line: Brandon Pettigrew is young veteran with a huge frame and amazing tools. He’s already an excellent pass blocker, and a very good run blocker. As a receiver, his awful case of the dropsies hurt both his grades and several key Lions drives. Overall, his many penalties did the same. If he can cut down on the mental mistakes, Pettigrew could be one of the best TEs in the game. If not, he’s still a great blocker, and a target defenses must respect.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions like to run 2-TE sets, both to for blocking purposes, and for passing purposes. With Pettigrew and Heller, the Lions have a powerful blocking tandem. With Pettigrew and Scheffler, the Lions have a (theoretically) potent receiving combo. This unit didn’t play like it’s capable of in 2010, but even so I see no needs to address. None of these players is perfect, but as a group they’re nearly perfect for this offense.


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