The 2011 season flashed images of progression, promise and potential for the Detroit Lions before culminating in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Now, the Lions brain trust is fully entrenched in the offseason, where they will take appraisal of their roster and determine the best means of improvement while operating within the league’s salary cap restraints (a number that is expected to be in the neighborhood of $120 million).
Over the next few weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions and hypothesize on what their future plans may be.
Scott Linehan loves tight ends. He loved them in Minnesota, Miami, and St. Louis, and it's been no different in Detroit. The Lions view the tight end position as one of value. They covet the versatility that the position offers and have built a core of players capable of embodying the roles that they envision from the position.
The team looks to the position to increase red zone efficiency, serve as an extension of the running game, create mismatches with opposing defenses and provide additional support in both run and pass blocking.
The most versatile player in the group – and also the Lions starting tight end – is Brandon Pettigrew.
Pettigrew was an appealing prospect to the Lions three years ago due to his diverse skill set. The Lions drafted him in the first round in the 2009 NFL draft (using the pick they acquired from the Dallas Cowboys in the Roy Williams trade) and expected him to be an immediate contributor as both a blocker and receiver. Pettigrew only played 11 games in his rookie season but demonstrated his talents in both aspects of the game and has proven to be an integral part of the offense since.
Last season, Pettigrew was behind only Calvin Johnson among the team's leaders in receptions, nabbing 83 passes for 777 yards and five touchdowns. He is an ideal weapon for the Lions because he can is effective in both the running and passing attack; he is a solid run blocker as well as pass protector, yet obviously a capable receiver and excels at body positioning.
The Lions often use Pettigrew to supplement their running attack, allowing the 26-year-old to gain favorable body positioning and throwing a short, high-percentage pass.
Pettigrew is signed through the 2013 season and will remain an important piece of the Lions offense.
Both of these tight ends have more defined roles on the team and sit on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to strengths and weaknesses.
Scheffler’s biggest strength is his receiving ability. He has good speed, great hands and is a solid route runner. He doesn’t possess top-notch blocking ability but the Lions rarely put him in a position to be a blocker. In 2011, he caught 26 passes -- six went for touchdowns -- along with 347 yards.
Heller, unlike Scheffler, excels in a blocking role. He is a capable receiver but lacks the necessary speed to be a consistent threat in that area. Heller appeared in 16 games for the Lions in 2011 but caught only six passes – however, he did play a valuable role for the team.
Heller was used as a blocking tight end and fullback (the team doesn’t carry a true fullback on the roster). He also lined up in the H-back position at times.
Scheffler is signed through 2013, while Heller’s deal is set to expire at the end of the 2012 season.
Both are expected to continue in the same roles in 2012.
The Lions tight end position is set for the 2012 season. The team will always carry a tight end on their practice squad – in addition to Pettigrew, Scheffler and Heller on the active roster – as they do place a lot of importance on the position (this season that honor belonged to Nathan Overbay). There doesn’t figure to be any changes to the position in 2012.