This is the second part of a multi-part series covering the Difference Makers in Detroit for the 2010 NFL season [First - Matthew Stafford]
Cat-a-lyst: a person or thing that precipitates an event or change. Something which incites activity.
Or Tony Scheffler.
The veteran tight end hasn't avoided media attention since joining the team's activities in June after recovering fully from a foot injury. Acquired in a three-team trade that dealt draft bust Ernie Sims to Philadelphia, Scheffler's versatility and athletic prowess has already endeared him to the team's coaching staff, in particular offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan flirted with Scheffler at multiple positions during the squad's recent three day mini-camp.
And the Morenci, Michigan native responded.
Scheffler demonstrated the soft hands, agile nature, and offensive presence the team anticipated when they made the roster addition in April. He played tight end (the team will use two tight end sets often in 2010), was split out as a receiver, and even lined up at full back. And he managed each with a fluidity that Detroit hasn't had at the position since Charlie Sanders.
"It's what he's going to bring," said coach Jim Schwartz last week, eluding to Scheffler's impact. "And what he's already done, and the way Scott's using him."
Detroit's offense, which will undoubtedly revolve around the passing game and Matthew Stafford, struggled in 2009 mainly due to matchup problems. The team's rushing attack was mediocre at best, and the only viable offensive threat was receiver Calvin Johnson. Often times, opponents would roll coverage to Johnson, who on occasion faced three defenders at a time. Missing another comparable receiving option, especially the growing vitality of a smooth moving tight end in today's NFL, Stafford was pressured into poor decisions and the offense went stagnant.
Tight end Tony Scheffler was a welcomed addition to Detroit.
But Scheffler's presence alone can make the difference between a forced throw and an open target.
You can't thumb your nose at the additions of receiver Nate Burleson or running back Jahvid Best. But Burleson is an aging vet and primarily a slot receiver, while Best is not an every down caliber running back. They'll help move the football, certainly, but it will be Scheffler who will manipulate defenses into spacing honestly, opening opportunities for the team's prolific talents. Namely, Calvin Johnson.
A versatile tight end is a key ingredient to any NFL offense that hopes to both produce and control the clock -- or really, be successful. And it isn't a secret, either.
The Colts rely on Dallas Clark to stretch defenses. The Saints do the same with Jeremy Shockey. Visanthe Shiancoe, molded from the same cast as Scheffler, was one of Brett Favre's favorite targets one season ago, and forced opponents to mind his whereabouts. It's no coincidence that each of those teams, buoyed by an athletic, dexterous tight end, were among the league's elite.
In Denver, Scheffler was good for 89 receptions between 2007 and 2008. His production dropped under first-year Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who used a system that didn't leverage his skillset. In Detroit, he's playing under the direction of Linehan, a mastermind that involves the position more than any other coordinator in the league.
"Tony is a 6-5, hybrid wide reciever, he can run a 4.5, and he's got great hands," said Schwartz. "He has a really good feel for the passing game and spacing. He's a multi-dimensional weapon."
In one package, the Lions used a two tight end set, splitting Scheffler out as a wide receiver. Most often, he'll be paired with the recovering Brandon Pettigrew (knee), who is also a towering 6-5 presence -- an enticing thought.
The options at the disposal of Stafford have grown with the acquisitions, but the effectiveness of those options, and whether or not that potential can be realized, will hinge on Scheffler's field savy and athletic skillset. If his mini-camp was any indication, he is genuinely Detroit's top offensive threat, and a vital part to the team's success in 2010.