Ever since being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2009, Matthew Stafford has always had an adequate option at the tight end position. On the same day he was drafted, the Lions traded back into the first round and selected tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall pick. Pettigrew wasn’t the greatest of all time and probably doesn’t warrant first-round consideration when you compare him to other tight ends, but he played 93 games and recorded 301 receptions for 2,965 yards and 17 touchdowns.
During his first three seasons in the league, he looked as if he was going to become a consistent cog in the offense. Unfortunately, his play declined and injuries caught up with him. After a torn ACL at the end of the 2015 season, Pettigrew wasn’t able to get healthy enough to start the season. He started the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and ended up being released near the end of the 2016 season.
Even though the Lions had Brandon Pettigrew, they also added Joseph Fauria as an undrafted free agent in the 2013 NFL Draft. As a rookie, Fauria solidified himself as a red zone threat with seven touchdowns. Fauria would only last another season, and in 2014, his second season with the Lions ended early because of an ankle injury. This put the Lions in an interesting position. It was clear they liked having two tight ends on the field, but there was some uncertainty about whether the Lions would be able to re-sign Brandon Pettigrew; he was set to become a free agent during the spring of 2014.
Sure enough, the Lions re-signed Pettigrew to a four-year deal worth $12 million. Before we knew it, the Lions were on the clock with the 10th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Per usual, the Lions made a questionable decision. Despite spending money on retaining a starting tight end, they went ahead and drafted another one. Eric Ebron was selected before Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, and Zack Martin.
This pick will always look bad and might never make sense, but just to try and make sense out of it. The Lions added a natural pass catcher in Ebron and were expected to use Pettigrew in a more of a blocking role. For Stafford, the connection was there with Ebron despite his struggles with drops. In his four seasons with the Lions, Ebron had 186 receptions, 2,070 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
Let’s bring it all together, shall we? In 2017, Matthew Stafford had 565 pass attempts, and 119 of those passes were intended for a tight end (Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, or Michael Roberts). That was good for 21% of the targets on the season. Fast forward to this season and it’s a totally different story:
Yes, this is a fantasy football spreadsheet, but it speaks volumes. Look right in the middle and you’ll see the Detroit Lions ranked dead last in receptions by tight ends. But let’s put receptions aside and take a look at volume for tight ends on the Lions for the 2018 season.
We have to add in the 17 pass attempts from Matt Cassel this season to the 555 pass attempts from Matthew Stafford, and the transition from 2017 to 2018 is stunning. This season, the three tight ends for the Lions (Levine Toilolo, Luke Willson, and Michael Roberts) only combined for 62 total targets. That’s good for 10.84% of the targets. Yes, you read that correctly and yes, I took away the touchdown pass that kicker Matt Prater threw to Levine Toilolo in week 17.
No matter how you slice it, the Lions need to find an upgrade at the tight end position. They could look to add potential free agent Jared Cook, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and should only be considered on a year-to-year basis. The free agent market is still tough to determine, but Cook would probably the top option in terms of production. At age 32, he did put together an impressive season of 68 receptions for 896 yards and six touchdowns.
Realistically, the Lions need to find a young tight end they can mold. Whether they continue to trend into the direction of a team that wants to protect the football and run first or turn into one of the more pass-heavy offenses, there will be plenty of options in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama, 6’4″ 246 lbs
This would be the best case scenario. I try to put the Lions in position to draft Noah Fant from Iowa in my head, but I just don’t see it happening. However, Irv Smith Jr. could very well be on the board for the Lions in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. It would work out perfectly for them in so many ways. He came into the season without any buzz, and all season long he’s been establishing himself as one of the best tight ends in the nation. With 40 receptions for 667 yards and seven touchdowns, there’s good reason to believe that Smith is just starting to scratch the surface of what he can be.
As the Lions approach ways to establish some type of rushing attack, Smith Jr. could come in and be a valuable piece as an in-line blocker. He has the ability to bully those that matchup against him in the box. Meanwhile, he has the ability to align in the slot and catch passes. He has the ability to create yards after the catch with his explosive athleticism; for a player of his size, he’s really an impressive athlete. If the Lions were able to draft him, he would be a home run pick for Matthew Stafford and this offense.
Caleb Wilson, UCLA, 6’5″ 235 lbs
The Bruins will lose their team leader in receptions, but Caleb Wilson could be a tremendous find for the Lions. After posting the best season ever for a Bruins tight end with 60 receptions for 965 yards and four touchdowns, Wilson has declared for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Wilson has long arms and enough athletic ability to play anywhere on the field. More often than not, Wilson will align from the slot, as he’s more of a receiver than a prototypical tight end. He won’t dominate as an in-line player, but he can move around and create mismatches for an offense. The Lions struggled to establish a consistent weapon underneath coverages, but Wilson has the ability to fill that niche. When we enter day three of the 2019 NFL Draft, there’s a chance that we see the Lions target Caleb Wilson.
Josh Oliver (TE 89 - SJSU) yeah, he's fun to watch— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) January 4, 2019
Great body control and concentration to come down with this catch. Also, love seeing his ability to turn around and bring this catch in. Meanwhile, he got both feet in bounds. This kid has some tools to be a good TE pic.twitter.com/fF4vwVQT07
Josh Oliver, San Jose State, 6’5″ 250 lbs
This would be a fun day three find for the Detroit Lions. I haven’t watched a ton of this kid, but through the small amount that I’ve seen, he’s got potential. In 2018, Oliver really turned the corner and became a playmaker for San Jose State. He finished the season with 56 receptions for 709 yards and four touchdowns. He’s not as established as other tight ends in this year’s draft, but he’s going to be a player that gets drafted based on his projection and upside.
It doesn’t make sense considering what the Lions got last year from their tight ends, but again, the upside to become a starter is there for Oliver. He does a good job securing the catch when facing contested catch situations and has a solid enough frame to play as a prototypical tight end on the line. As you can tell from the play above, he can be motioned around the LOS and certainly shows good body control and athletic ability. Depending on how he does during the draft process, we could see his name rise up draft boards. For now, he’d be a solid addition to the Lions for the right price.