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Film breakdown: Why did the Lions keep tight end Khari Lee over Andrew Quarless?

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Let’s take a look to see what the Lions like about Khari Lee.

The Detroit Lions made a somewhat surprising move on Monday, releasing tight end Andrew Quarless instead of activating him to the 53-man roster, who just completed serving his two-game suspension. While it’s not all that surprising that the Lions dropped a tight end given the injury situation at other positions like defensive end and linebacker, most were expecting a different tight end to be dropped, whether it be recent waiver claim Khari Lee or Orson Charles, who spent Week 1 as a healthy scratch.

The Lions got a good long look at Lee during Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans, so let’s take a look at his game tape and determine if we can see why they decided to keep him over Quarless.

How they used Khari Lee

Lee was in on 20 offensive snaps on Sunday, the majority of which were two tight end looks. When Lee was in the game, the Lions ran the ball nine times and dropped back to throw 11 times. When the Lions called a running play, Lee ran a receiver route six times and stayed in for pass protection five times. Lee did not receive a single target from Matthew Stafford against the Titans.

So Lee’s presence in the game did not tip the defense’s hand as to whether a playcall was a pass or a run. When the Lions did pass, they trusted Lee’s route running ability just as much as his pass blocking skills. It shouldn’t come as much surprise that Stafford didn’t look Lee’s way all game, as he has only been on the squad for two weeks. Overall, this tells me that the Lions value Lee’s versatility, because they used him in just about every way possible.

How did Lee play?

Short answer: okay. Long answer: he struggled in pass protection, did a decent job as a run blocker and was a non-factor as a route runner.

Pass blocking

We’ll start with the bad to get it out of the way. Lee didn’t show a lot of confidence in pass blocking in his first game with the Lions. Call it nerves or uncertainty under a new playbook, but Lee looked completely hesitant when trying to protect Stafford’s back:

Lee—on the picture’s left—is up against Titans linebacker David Bass. Bass gets an initial push in, catching Lee off balance, but Khari recovers and re-anchors his feet. Unfortunately, this delay causes him valuable time, and he whiffs at Bass, who now is already on his way to Stafford. The pressure causes an incompletion.

Again on our left, Lee is this time lined up against three-time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo. A quick inside fake is all Orakpo needed to then dip outside and beat Lee to the end. The pressure from the corner forces Stafford up into the pocket, where he’s ultimately sacked.

Run blocking

It wasn’t all bad for Lee, as he showed a good understanding of blocking assignments in the run game and was a little quicker to tie up his man.

Lee, aligned next to Taylor Decker, essentially acts as the lead blocker on this play. Fullback Michael Burton takes out the outside linebacker, Decker and Tomlinson double team the defensive end, and Lee heads to the second level to take out an inside linebacker. All four guys hit their mark, but there’s one problem:

Theo Riddick doesn’t trust his blockers and cuts back to his right.

Lee also was impressive with his strength at times in the run game. Take, for example, this run play where Lee (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) is matched up against rookie Kevin Dodd (6-foot-5, 277 pounds).

Most importantly, notice how Lee is able to get into position before Dodd even moves forward. From there, Lee stands up Dodd easily and nicely twists him to the outside, creating a nice running lane inside.

Lee’s Lions debut wasn’t exactly flashy and definitely had some troubles along the way, but I can see why the Lions are keeping him around. Lee’s versatility can be used to keep the defenses guessing. His play, while currently subpar, could potentially improve as he gets more comfortable in this offense, especially since he’s still only 24 years old.