The Detroit Lions had a problem at tight end in 2016. Their roster was full of one-dimensional players. This was a problem, because it allowed defensive coordinators, safeties and linebackers to know what was coming before the snap of the ball. The Lions did not play to their tendencies every single time of course; no team actually does that. Going against their tendencies usually ended up being an even worse plan than tipping the play to the defense. Every Lions fan who recalls the roll out tight end screen to Matt Mulligan knows what I am talking about. The Lions’ aspirations for a playoff victory died in that moment.
What Do The Lions Have At Tight End?
Eric Ebron and Cole Wick are the only players under contract for 2017. Ebron has picked up his effort blocking in the running game, with limited results. He is simply not a well rounded tight end. Ebron is a big bodied slot receiver who occasionally lines up in a three point stance. He was third on the team in receptions though, and that makes him a useful player. I struggle to think of anything Cole Wick did well in the regular season. He showed well in the preseason, but was clearly not ready when he made the active game day roster. A full off-season with a professional level strength and conditioning program, could turn him into a player, or not. The cupboard is bare for the Lions at the tight end spot.
What Don’t the Lions Need at Tight End?
One-dimensional players simply do not have a place in the Detroit Lions offense under Jim Bob Cooter. The offense relies on every skill position player having the ability to do everything their position might require of them as the only means of obfuscating the play calls. Each has strengths and weaknesses obviously, but a certain level of competence in all aspects of the game is mandatory. The Lions do not need specialized players. The Lions used a reserve offensive tackle in the blocking tight end role on running plays for most of the year. That had two effects on games that were both detrimental to the Lions offense. It told opposing teams that the Lions were likely running the ball. It also put one less player on the field that defenses had to cover, leaving at least one defender free to focus on finding the hole in the running play.
What do the Lions Need at Tight End?
During the season I wrote that the return of a healthy Brandon Pettigrew would be the best thing that could happen to the Lions’ offense. The key word was healthy. Pettigrew has not been that for years. What I meant is that the Lions need a versatile tight end. He needs to be capable of blocking like a fourth string offensive tackle. That same player also needs to be threatening enough in the passing game that teams are forced to cover him. Players limited offensively but able to contribute on special teams, such as Matt Mulligan, will find roles on the bottom of the roster. They do not help the offense however. Ebron is at the top of the depth chart, he has increased his production as a receiver in each of his three seasons.
The Lions need at least one player who can shoulder some of the receiving load behind Ebron, but who can also block. A two tight end formation that was not automatically slanted toward running the ball is the key to the offense taking a step forward in 2017. Jeff Risdon said on the Detroit Lions Podcast that he has heard the Lions have identified this spot as one of their primary needs this off-season. I would say that it’s about damn time, and I will be going over a few of their options in the coming days.