Position preview: Will the Detroit Lions investment in their tight ends pay off?

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Brandon Pettigrew runs with the ball versus the Cincinnatti Bengals.

The moves general manager Martin Mayhew made at the tight end position this offseason still confound many. Why would Mayhew aggressively resign free agent Brandon Pettigrew and then turn around and draft Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick in the draft? Will Joseph Fauria ever have a chance to expand upon a productive rookie season? Can the Detroit Lions afford to invest so heavily in the tight end position with so many other needs?

The Lions now boast the last two tight ends drafted in the top 20 picks first round in the NFL. Pettigrew was selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Since then, no other tight end has been selected that high in the first round until Ebron this season. Oddly enough, the only other team to choose a tight end in first round at all is the Cincinnati Bengals who have twice selected a tight end with the 21st pick. Some teams never learn.

Pettigrew hasn’t exactly been a bust. He’s struggled with drops and had a few injuries. He’s been disappointing in the red zone, totaling only 16 touchdowns in his five year career to this point. Pettigrew has averaged just under 10 yards per catch and just under 40 yards per game receiving in his career. That doesn’t make him a bust, but it’s certainly not the kind of numbers you hope for from a first round pick. It was a bit of a surprise that the Lions resigned him this offseason, and that they did so as quickly as they did. Mayhew committed the Lions to four more seasons with Pettigrew, sighting him as a priority to resign this offseason.

Early in the scouting of the draft, it made sense that the Lions might target Ebron. They needed help in spreading the field and up the middle to compliment Calvin Johnson and the newly signed Golden Tate on the outside. Then Mayhew brought Pettigrew back, and the focus shifted to the cornerback position and possibly a third wide receiver as the projected first round pick. Mayhew surprised many by selecting Ebron. Ebron has the talent to become a pro bowl player for the Lions and will be a matchup problem for their opponents. Analysts have compared him to Jimmy Graham of the Saints and it makes sense considering the Lions hired Joe Lombardi away from New Orleans to be their offensive coordinator. It’s a comparison that is unfair to a rookie, and likely impossible for Ebron to live up to. Graham is taller, faster and has a longer reach and greater jumping ability than Ebron. Those are measurable numbers that can’t be denied. Ebron should be very productive throughout his career, assuming his tendency to drop the ball continues to diminish as it did in college, but for him to live up to expectations of being the next Jimmy Graham is unfair.

Pettigrew is expected to be the blocking tight end, and Ebron is being counted on to spread the field and catch the majority of the balls at the position. Both players will likely be on the field at the same time often in the style of offense that the Lions will run. Where then does that leave last year’s rookie sensation Joseph Fauria? Most likely, out in the cold. Fauria’s size and speed make him very appealing as a receiver, but he did not show the ability to block that is required of a full time tight end. Fauria will not get much playing time, which is disappointing after his seven touchdown rookie performance. His 6’7” frame will get him some red zone action, if only as a distraction to the coverage that Johnson will receive, but not much else.

Ebron should be a star in the NFL as time moves on, but rarely does a receiver, be it wide receiver or tight end, excel in their rookie season. Johnson, Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, Pettigrew and even Jimmy Graham struggled in their rookie seasons. Expect the same from Ebron. Pettigrew should be pretty much the same player we’ve watched for the past five seasons. Short passes, not quite making the first down marker and the occasional game that shows us why the Lions selected him so high in the draft in the first place will be his legacy. Fauria will only get on the field if injury occurs and in the red zone. All in all, the Lions will consider this position to be a positive one for the team, but it might take another season for that to pan out and they want to win now.

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