Sorting Through the Detroit Lions' Tight End Situation

The Lions' tight end situation was sticky enough last year. Now you toss Eric Ebron in, and you've got a full-blown mess.

Grab three marbles. Shake them in your hand, throw them at a wall and douse them in rice pudding. The result will be clearer than the Detroit Lions' tight end situation, and probably far tastier.

Last year, the Lions made the roles of Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria fairly well-defined: Pettigrew would work, and Fauria would play. Even with the defined roles, the results were disappointing. The team finished 23rd in tight end receiving yards, according to And this isn't solely due to Calvin Johnson sucking up all of the targets as the team finished third in tight end receiving yards in 2012 behind only the Patriots and the Texans.

Now, not only does the disappointment of last year linger, but the team has added physical man-candy Eric Ebron into the fold. Great. Just what fans of clarity were hoping for.

Although this may be as easy as convincing Santonio Holmes to not excessively celebrate another meaningless first down, let's try to bring some sense to the Detroit tight end situation. In order to do this, I'll be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. It's a measure of the expected points added (or subtracted - ahem, Greg Little) on each play.

For tight ends, we'll be talking mainly about Reception NEP and Target NEP. Reception NEP looks at the points added every time the player caught the ball, and Target NEP takes into account every time they were targeted, thus including subtractions for incompletions and interceptions. We can also look at Reception NEP per target, which is just Reception NEP divided by the number of targets. These can help us evaluate who was most efficient in their usage last year and project forward to this year.

The Incumbents

If Pettigrew and Fauria had one thing in common last year, it would be their mediocrity when it came to numberFire's analytics. Below are their NEP numbers from last year and where they ranked relative to other tight ends. The Reception NEP per target rank is based on tight ends that were targeted at least 30 times, which was exactly Fauria's total.

PlayerReception NEPRankTarget NEPRankRec. NEP/TRank
Brandon Pettigrew34.0525th10.1133rd0.5433rd
Joe Fauria29.0831st11.4131st0.972nd

You can basically throw Fauria's Reception NEP per target right out the window because of his stupid touchdown-to-reception ratio. That's one way to jack your NEP numbers off the heezy. Outside of that, it looks like Fauria and Pettigrew are both below replacement level. However, a closer look at Fauria may show that he has some (gasp!) actual value beyond his unnaturally good cabbage patch.

If you had to take one guess of when tight ends are most valuable, what would you say? Probably in the red zone and on third down. These two splits make Fauria look like the lovechild of Tony Gonzalez and Gronk (and a far more attractive lovechild than you may have suspected at that).

Last year, Fauria caught 18 total passes; nine of those were on third down and seven came in the red zone. Pettigrew caught 12 of his 41 passes on third down and only four in the red zone. Basically, when it mattered, the team was more likely to defer to Fauria. That would seemingly bode well for him heading into 2014.

Another potential argument in favor of increased Fauria usage would be that he was a rookie last season; he should only get better, right? Well, Fauria did technically receive increased usage in the second half of the season. His numbers increased to 10 catches for 126 yards in the final eight games compared to 8 for 81 in the first eight. His 10 receptions in the final eight games were only five fewer than Pettigrew, who saw his usage decrease significantly in the latter half of the season.

Then you look at Fauria's consistency, and your fun meter instantly deflates. He had three receptions in four separate games; in the other 12, he had a total of 6. If you take out Pettigrew's top four-reception games, he still had 21 receptions, greater than half his receptions for the total season. Pettigrew only failed to record a reception in one of the 14 games he played. Fauria was shut out in six of his 16 games, including twice in the final five weeks.

Despite the (relative) production on third down and in the red zone, Fauria was far too often a non-factor for the Lions for him to be a guy you can count on this year. Pettigrew is just exceptionally mediocre. Thus, enter Eric Ebron.

The New Kid on the Block

Ebron put up some yummy stats in his collegiate career at North Carolina. As a junior, he racked up 62 receptions for 973 yards. Then he decided to go out and run a 4.6 40-yard dash and a 10'0" at the combine to officially achieve slobber status.

The problem with Ebron, as Brandon Gdula pointed out when the Lions drafted him, is that he doesn't exactly have a nose for the end zone. In 34 games at UNC, Ebron only caught eight touchdowns, three of which came in his final season. The eight touchdowns are only one more than Fauria had last year in 16 games.

The distribution splits of Ebron's receptions was eerily similar to that of Pettigrew. Last year, Pettigrew had 12 third-down receptions; Ebron had 10. Pettigrew caught four passes in the red zone; Ebron caught four as well.

I know you can't really put a lot of stock in preseason stats (Mark Sanchez once had a perfect quarterback rating in an exhibition), but Ebron has just one catch for two yards through his first two professional games. (Note: Ebron had two receptions for 36 yards in the team's second pre-season game. That game wasn't yet on, where I get my preseason stats, so I flubbed on that one. Overall, Ebron has three receptions for 38 yards in two preseason games. Carry on!) Granted, he did get banged up in training camp, but this should still raise some flags when it comes to Ebron's immediate production.

When Ebron does get a hang of the offense, he should fill a role very similar to Pettigrew last year - all work, no play makes Eric a bad fantasy target.

This means that Fauria's role should remain largely unchanged. He's most likely still the best third down and red zone target of the tight ends, so he'll get his - the question is whether or not he'll see additional work in other situations and amp up the consistency.

It's starting to look like Pettigrew is on his way out of Detroit. Things were looking up for him after a solid 2011, but now Detroit has drafted his clone 10th overall. It's fascinating how quickly things change. But, it looks like for Detroit, although their toys have changed, their situation at tight end will remain the same.