The Lions spent the 20th overall pick of the 2009 draft and, indirectly, the eighth overall pick of the 2006 draft on tight ends. That’s a lot of resources to invest in a position that seems to be going the way of the dodo—but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loves to deploy his two big targets alongside his wideouts, often to great effect.
Let’s check 2010’s Tight End Old Mother Hubbard for where these players left off:
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.
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.
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.
This is the order in which their PFF grades shook out, which is the opposite of what we’d expect. What about 2011?
The Lions’ top-rated tight end in 2011 was Tony Scheffler. I again quote from last season's report:
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.
This season, the pattern continued: Scheffler was targeted once every 7.73 snaps he played, 4th-most in the NFL. He trailed only Jimmy Graham, Evan Moore, and Kellen Winslow; he had the highest yards-per-catch of that group (9th overall) at 13.3. Scheffler also scored six touchdowns; that’s one every 6.83 targets (3rd-best in the NFL) and 52.8 snaps (1st-best in the NFL).
Just from watching, it seemed as though Scheffler was placed on the field the instant the Lions crossed the opponent’s 35, and instructed to go make a touchdown happen. The stats bear this observation out. Inexplicably, Scheffler’s WPA was not calculated by Advanced NFL Stats. He didn’t have a whole mess of reps, but anyone who scores six touchdowns should have had a significant impact on his team’s chances to win. My suspicion is his WPA would be quite high, especially relative to his EPA.
Bottom Line: Tony Scheffler is a weapon. A walking, talking red zone mismatch with ridiculous dance moves. He has a very specific role in this offense and he executes it very well. Expect nothing to change in 2012.
Brandon Pettigrew, on the whole, improved slightly in the eyes of PFF graders, but not relative to other tight ends. In 2010, Pettigrew was marked at –8.0 overall in a season where the TE average was -3.23. In 2011, he graded out at –7.1, and the average was –1.74. This all sounds like it was more of the same, but in fact Pettigrew’s production was completely different:
This is why I do these things. Look at Pettigrew’s 2010 performance: he was a devastating all-around blocker, much better than average in both the ground and air games. He was also a heavily-penalized butterfingers, and as a result his grade was well below-average. This might be slightly harsh. Pettigrew’s athleticism got him open quite often, drawing a lot of passes his way. Sometimes he got his hands on balls other tight ends wouldn’t have been able to . . . but he dropped a lot of the balls he got his hands on.
In 2011, Pettigrew’s performance in the receiving game improved drastically, nearly matching the NFL average. He caught 70.3% of the passes thrown his way, 23rd-best and above the NFL average of 68.5. His pass protection was even improved over 2010, his +3.5 grade 4th-best in the NFL. Unfortunately, he took a big step back in run blocking: from +0.5 to –7.0. Pettigrew’s run-block grade was ranked 40th of 65; well below the 0.0 average.
Unfortunately, Pettigrew's high penalty rate continued: he was flagged 11 times for 117 yards; both of those marks were the worst in the NFL. This is why Pettigrew’s overall mark keeps getting dragged below average: he takes way too many penalties.
Perspective: there’s nothing average about Pettigrew’s production. He caught 83 passes, 3rd-most in the NFL, out of 117 targets—also 3rd-most in the NFL. Those receptions gained 777 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those targets came once every 9.24 snaps, the 13th-most frequent target rate in the game. Unlike Scheffler, a situational specialist targeted once every 7.73 snaps, Pettigrew played almost every down the Lions’ offense did. With 1,081 snaps played, Pettigrew got more reps than anyone in the NFL save Rob Gronkowski.
Bottom Line: Brandon Pettigrew is an enormous part of the Lions’ offense, and will be for the foreseeable future. He grew phenomenally as a pass catcher from 2010 to 2011, apparently at the expense of his run blocking. Pettigrew remains a devastating two-way player, and a truly rare talent. Last year’s assessment remains correct: If he can cut down on the mental mistakes, Pettigrew could be one of the best TEs in the game.
Will Heller was released to make cap room, and has yet to be re-signed. He, or another blocking specialist with not-stone hands, will need to be required. Oops, I missed his re-signing.
A Will Heller-type, preferably of the rookie variety. Or maybe Will Heller Possibly a developmental rookie, but otherwise the Lions are set here.