Why Going Tight End Early Could Make Sense For The Lions

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While Many Fans Complain, The Detroit Lions May Go Tight End Early In The Draft.

Since 2009, the Lions have taken two tight ends in the first round: Brandon Pettigrew 20th overall in 2009, and Eric Ebron 10th overall in 2014. During that time, only one other team has done that. The Bengals drafted Jermaine Gresham 21st overall in 2010, and they drafted Tyler Eifert, also at 21st overall, in 2013.

In that eight-year span, the other thirty teams in the league combined haven’t spent a single first round pick on a tight end. According to a modernized rendition of Jimmie Johnson’s draft value chart, the selections of Ebron and Pettigrew amounts to an investment of 2150 points of draft capital at the position. In fact, the Lions’ total of 2158 points is tops in the league during that time.

That investment dwarfs that of the runner-up Bengals (1963.6) by nearly 200 points and is more than the third and fourth teams’ – the Colts (857.6) and the Ravens (814.8) – respective investments combined. Of course, this is all just a complicated, mathematical way of saying Detroit has spent a lot of resources on the position, which is something fans already knew. Hence, many are hesitant about the prospect of adding a tight end early. Especially since many of that contingency are misguidedly angry at Eric Ebron. But I’m here to tell you, ladies and gentleman, that drafting a tight end early this year is a good idea.

Ebron, while wildly talented, is ultimately not a tight end. His position is an ambiguous one in a constantly evolving NFL, where modern offenses are focused more on versatility and creating mismatches than they are presupposed notions of what a position is supposed to be.

Remember Jimmy Graham’s battle with the Saints over whether he’d be paid like a receiver or a tight end? This evolution started long before that. Although he’s now a dinosaur by league standards, Vernon Davis is the oldest active player that was part of the new guard. Davis measured in at 6’3″, 253 lbs at the combine and ran a 4.38 40, and it was a big part of why he got drafted sixth overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. But, Davis wasn’t even the first of his kind.

Guys like Jeremy Shockey, Antonio Gates, and Kellen Winslow, Jr. were running 4.6 40’s and beginning to redefine the position in the early 2000s, a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a TE to run a 4.9 40 (Good luck getting drafted at that speed nowadays). These types of players are sometimes referred to as ‘move tight ends.’ And Eric Ebron is a move tight end, for lack of a better term.

Ebron’s abilities are maximized when he lines up in different spots in various formations. He’s a matchup problem, but he isn’t a great blocker. Yet, because of the Lions’ lack of depth behind him, he often finds himself playing a suboptimal role within the offense.

This hurts the team in two ways: 1) it forces a player who isn’t very good at something to do a mediocre or inconsistent job, and 2) it deprives a player who is good at something the opportunity to shine. If the Lions draft a tight end early – say, OJ Howard at 21 – then they improve the team in two ways: 1) gives a player a chance to make an optimally impactful contribution by utilizing them in a role which they’re best suited for, 2) minimizes the chance a player negatively impacts the team when assigned a role that doesn’t fit their skillset. Some people call it, “Killing two birds with one stone.”

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Due to the departure of Anquan Boldin, they now have a need for a third receiver, considering most NFL teams are in 11 personnel a majority of the time. Ebron would be able to thrive in a similar role, but it would leave a huge vacancy at the TE position.

If you draft a TE, one who’s as capable a blocker as they are a pass catcher, you can improve two positions at once. But, it goes deeper than that. If Ebron is lined up in the slot or split out wide, it opens up the playbook for the offense.

How? Calling plays out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers) when you have two legitimate receiving threats at the tight end creates mismatches. If a defense stays in a base package to defend the run, then they’re susceptible to being exploited in coverage. If a defense opts for a sub look, they could be opening up running lanes.

The 2011 New England Patriots are a good case study. With Gronk, the late Aaron Hernandez, and a stable of versatile running backs, the Pats were able to run a variety of looks from the same personnel grouping while maintaining offensive balance and unpredictability (A 2013 Chris Brown article for Grantland briefly details their success with the grouping).

It also allowed the Patriots to run a lot of no-huddle, which is something Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter have professed a desire to do. Stafford also really likes having two TEs. Speaking of case studies, the 2011 Lions aren’t a bad one either. In Stafford’s best statistical season (5000+ yards, 41 TDs), Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew combined for 109 catches and 11 TDs, as popular #OnePride Twitter user Deacon Blues noted. There’s plenty of room on the boat for another TE, as long as they do the right things.

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Adding a second tight end also improves the run game, and if you improve the run game, your offense consequently becomes more balanced and improves in all phases. Many fans covet a mid-round running back in a historically deep class, but the Lions’ characteristically poor rushing attack isn’t due to a bad group of backs. It’s been due to a typically poor offensive line, which Bob Quinn has invested heavily in the past two offseasons, and in part, the loss of Brandon Pettigrew.

It can’t be understated how much a tight end proficient in blocking can improve a run game. In 2013, Pettigrew started 14 games, and the Lions ranked 17th in the league in rushing that year with 112 YPG. They also ranked sixth in total offense with 392.1 yards per game. In 2014 and 2015, he started a combined 17 games. The Lions ranked 28th (88.9 YPG) and 30th (83.4 YPG) in rushing, and 19th (340.8 YPG) and 20th (346.7) in total offense those years.

There are a lot of factors involved – namely one Joe Lombardi – but when it was just Ebron and a bunch of schmoes under JBC, it wasn’t much better. The Lions ranked 30th in rushing (79.9) and 21st in total offense (338.8). Again — there are several variables at play, but the Lions’ offense ultimately performed better when they had a good blocking tight end.

Ebron was never meant to be the man at tight end. That is to say – that he wasn’t supposed to ever assume regular inline duties. Mayhew envisioned him being paired with Pettigrew and being used almost exclusively as a move tight end. At the time he was drafted, Mayhew had this to say about his shiny, new toy:

“He’s that kind of player that we can play a lot more 12-person with two tight end packages. [Brandon] Pettigrew will be on the line wide and this guy will be split out the way [Jimmy] Graham was used. He can really be like a third receiver for us.”

But those plans were thrown to the wind when Pettigrew’s career was derailed by injuries. All things considered, I don’t think it was very wise of Mayhew to trade Michael Williams away, given Pettigrew’s injury history, but that’s another matter entirely. The fact is the Lions have basically been playing Ebron out of position for almost two years now. Despite that and the fact he was used minimally his rookie season, he’s posted yardage totals through three years comparable to the production of several Pro Bowl tight ends through their first three seasons. Imagine what he’s capable of if used properly. But he can’t be used properly until the Lions find a guy to make a difference inline and in the passing game.

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Not to mention, it’s simply smart management to stockpile depth at the position now, in a year where the talent is as deep as it’s ever been. Pending Ebron’s option, the Lions have zero tight ends under contract for 2018. Adding a quality TE not only improves the team immediately, but it also has positive long-term implications because it gives the organization a contingency plan if Ebron leaves. Planning for the future is something the previous administration often failed to do, and it resulted in them taking Ebron over Aaron Donald when it would have helped to prepare for a post-Suh, something Lions fans often bemoan.

So even fans that dislike Ebron and don’t see him as part of the team’s future should be able to get behind drafting a TE early, even if it’s anticipation of being rid of him. But once they see the magic happen, they’ll be glad they have both.

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