Can Darren Fells Solidify The Tight End Position For The Lions?
One of Detroit’s potentially most important free agent signings this offseason was Darren Fells. He comes to Detroit after a three year stint with the Arizona Cardinals, where he was efficient at both receiving passes and blocking. Fells took a very strange path to the NFL that involved a five-year career of professional basketball in Europe, Mexico and South America. Now, he has left basketball behind and is a NFL tight end. After getting his professional football footing in Arizona, Fells has decided to take his talents to Detroit, signing a one year deal worth 1.5 million dollars. Here is what he will bring to the Lions in 2017.
Darren Fells is a massive target in the receiving game, standing at 6’7″ and weighing in at 281 pounds. He is not going to run ultra-crisp routes or have elite speed, quickness, or agility, but he provides a massive target with sure hands for Matthew Stafford and can make very physical catches. Here is an example of his physicality in the passing game. Fells runs a corner route in the endzone against the Bengals, and Carson Palmer decides to just lob up a jump ball in Fells’ direction. Fells not only elevates above the defender and catches the pass, but he catches it between two defensive backs and holds on to the ball despite being hit hard.
Darren Fells isn’t purely a physical receiver either, he can do a good job of getting open over the middle, as he does on this play against the Panthers. Fells sees that Carolina is in zone coverage and that the linebacker is trailing towards the runningback, and does a good job of making a cut to the inside and catching an intermediate pass over the middle. Then, he slips his way between two defensive backs and gets into the endzone for a touchdown.
Over the last couple of seasons, Darren Fells has quietly been one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Last season, Pro Football focus ranked Fells as the third best pass blocking tight end in the entire league, and he was also ranked as the 17th best run blocker at his position. Fells is a tight end, but he is so big that he nearly has the size of an offensive lineman, making him a very good matchup with virtually any defender and an effective blocker.
Here is a play against the San Francisco 49ers that shows Fells’ blocking talents. Fells is lined up at the bottom of the line of scrimmage (he is wearing number 85) against a 49er defensive end. The run play goes to the side Fells is blocking on, so it is up to Fells to open up the running lane. Fells absolutely overpowers the defensive end, opening up the outside for the runningback.
Although Darren Fells only has three seasons of NFL experience, he is already 31 years old due to his endeavours with professional basketball. This means that even if he is an effective player in Detroit, he likely doesn’t have very many seasons left in him. It is also somewhat alarming to have a 31 year old with only three seasons of experience – tight end is one of the most difficult positions to play in the NFL. Many tight ends are still developing after their third season, but Fells likely doesn’t have a lot of development left when you consider his age.
Fells has also never produced above average receiving numbers. He is coming off a season where he only caught 14 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown, and in his three year career only has 40 receptions for 536 yards and four touchdowns. It is likely that Fells won’t be targeted in the passing game a lot in Detroit, but it would still inspire more confidence if he had better career receiving numbers.
Going into the offseason, Detroit’s tight end depth was dismal. After Eric Ebron, there was nobody on the Lions’ roster at tight end. What Detroit really needed was an effective blocking tight end who can occasionally catch a few passes here or there, and that is exactly what they got in Darren Fells. With the news that Taylor Decker will be out for at least the first part of the season, Fells is even more valuable, as he will likely be be asked to help block more on the left side of the line. Fells also has the added bonus of being an effective red zone threat due to his size. Darren Fells will bring the two tight end formation back to Detroit, and that is a steal for 1.5 million dollars.
2017 Statistics Projection: 15 receptions, 150 yards, 3 touchdowns, finishes top 10 in PFF overall blocking grades