Finding A Role For Pettigrew In The Lions Offense
By Scott McMahon
TE Brandon Pettigrew was selected 20th overall in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, 18 picks after the Detroit Lions selected QB Matthew Stafford first overall. Pettigrew was supposed to provide a steady presence for Stafford across the middle of the field, much like he did during his career at Oklahoma State University. Teaming up with WR Calvin Johnson, the idea behind drafting Pettigrew in the first round was to create a more balanced passing attack while adding another large body on the line for run blocking purposes.
So far, I think it’s safe to say that the Pettigrew pick hasn’t exactly worked out like the Lions had hoped. In five seasons, Pettigrew has averaged 57 catches and 568 yards per year, and has seen his receptions, yards and touchdowns decrease over the past two seasons. Any Lions fan can also tell you that Pettigrew may be the most frustrating receiving option that the Lions have -- his affinity for dropping catchable balls on third downs and late in games leaves countless fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Pettigrew’s drop rate actually decreased in 2013, from 13.24 percent down to 8.89 percent, but still remains over 11 percent for his career. Any hopes of Pettigrew becoming a decent complement to Megatron have been extinguished, leaving just the blocking aspect to hang his proverbial hat on.
Although Pettigrew has earned a reputation as a decent blocker, much has clearly been misunderstood about his effectiveness on the line. ProFootballFocus.com actually rated the Lions tight end as the 48th best run-blocking tight end in the NFL out of 64 at the position in 2013. Although he ranks seventh in pass blocking, Pettigrew has shown himself to be more of a liability on the field than an asset.
With all of that in mind, it only made sense then that the Lions signed Pettigrew to a new four-year deal in March worth $16 million. Many Lions fans would agree that Pettigrew not only didn’t deserve an extension, but also wouldn’t have even deserved to have his team option picked up if an extension was not reached in the first place. The contract came into further question when Detroit drafted TE Eric Ebron 10th overall in May’s draft. Ebron is clearly not going to sit on the bench and observe. The Lions intention is to get Ebron integrated into the offense as soon as possible and give Stafford a Jimmy-Graham-type player at the position.
So where does that leave Pettigrew?
Attitude permitting, it’s hard to imagine Pettigrew having much of a role outside of teacher and as a blocking tight end. Ideally, Pettigrew will serve as another blocker on an already strong Lions offensive line, and help further protect his quarterback. Ebron will surely be involved in the passing game early and often, and will hopefully solidify himself as a viable threat down the field. In the red zone, Joseph Fauria’s 6-7 frame made him a valuable commodity against smaller linebackers and defensive backs, as seven of his 18 catches as a rookie in 2013 went for touchdowns. Unfortunately for Pettigrew, that means that his offensive statistics will likely continue to tumble.
Where Pettigrew can prove his value, though, is in teaching both Ebron and Fauria the lay of the position in the NFL. Pettigrew may only have five years of experience, but he has appeared in more than four times as many NFL games as the other two combined, and has played against some of the tougher linebackers and defensive lineman in the league. If Pettigrew wants to really prove that he’s worth any money to the Lions at all, he needs to show that he can lead a raw duo of players and contribute to the overall good of the team. His numbers won’t be fantasy football-worthy, and will continue to fall from there if Ebron and Fauria can provide a solid one-two punch. But if Pettigrew truly believes in his team and wants to win, he’ll swallow his pride and turn into the leader that Detroit's coaching staff clearly sees him as.
It’s entirely unknown at this point how long the Lions actually intend on keeping Pettigrew -- it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him cut in another year or two, or after Ebron hopefully edges toward maximizing his potential. Pettigrew’s contract does not pose a major cap hit should the Lions decide to release him before his contract runs out, which makes it even more plausible that Pettigrew is simply a low-risk insurance policy in case Ebron gets hurt or can’t produce in the NFL. If Pettigrew is needed to play, or if he successfully serves as a mentor to the two younger tight ends, then the money will have been well spent. If it’s clear that Pettigrew has become disposable, the contract works in the Lions favor, and the 29-year-old tight end can move on to his next team.
Either way, Brandon Pettigrew sits in a peculiar limbo -- his job has never been more secure or volatile at the same time. His performance on the sidelines could end up being more valuable than his work on the field, and could potentially help his team win more games than if he played any snaps at all.
In whatever role he is placed in, Pettigrew will have to show that he is willing and able to positively respond to an uncertain atmopshere if he wants to be a part of a winning football team in 2014.