Now that we’re in full offseason mode, we’re going to review every single Detroit Lions player that finished the 2016 season under contract. We’ll look at their expectations coming into the season, whether they met those expectations and what to expect of them going forward. We will begin with the upcoming free agents, as they are the most intriguing and time sensitive.
Expectations before 2016
After spending training camp and part of the preseason with Detroit, Mulligan was released by the Lions prior to their preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills. The team was confident in Eric Ebron’s health after suffering a scare during their inter-squad scrimmage, seemed intrigued by the skill set of undrafted rookie free agent Cole Wick and viewed Orson Charles as their de facto blocking tight end, thus plugging the role Mulligan could fill.
Actual role in 2016
2016 stats: 8 games | 1 target, 1 reception, 8 yards, 0 touchdowns
Detroit’s tight end situation was quite a bit of a mess, to put it plainly. Even though Ebron was healthy out of the gate, he missed three games from Weeks 5-7. His replacements—Khari Lee, Clay Harbor and Cole Wick—all saw playing time each of those weeks with Harbor slotting in as the starter.
After Cole Wick was placed on IR after Week 8’s game against the Texans, the Lions brought back Matthew Mulligan in preparation for Week 9. Mulligan would see significant playing time with a clearly defined role through the end of the season: He played in at least 17 snaps per game from Week 9 through Week 17 and would serve as the team’s primary blocking tight end.
Matthew Mulligan was more reliable than not in his role for Detroit. According to Pro Football Focus, Mulligan was the fifth-best tight end when it came to pass protection, earning a grade of 72.8—an area where Ebron really struggled with, earning a grade of 29.6 and finishing 63rd out of 63 qualifying tight ends.
As a run blocker, Mulligan was serviceable, but his presence tended to be too predictable when on the field: Of his 179 total snaps, Mulligan was blocking on 154 of those plays.
Outlook for 2017
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
Detroit isn’t so entirely desperate at tight end because they at least have their starter: Ebron’s 2016 season was his best yet even though he was hampered by injuries. As a receiving threat, he’s dynamic and has a chance to exploit mismatches. However, where Ebron is limited, he’s definitely limited; Ebron’s ability to block is clearly not his strong suit, but Mulligan’s one-dimensional skill set limits his value as well.
As is the case with quite a few positions on this team, but maybe moreso here than others, the Lions need to add a second tight end with more versatility, or more aptly stated, the ability to be effective as a receiver and a blocker. Wick is a receiving tight end, but doesn’t have the chops to block. Harbor and Lee lost their snaps to Mulligan and a healthy Ebron. As our Kent Lee Platte pointed out, and the Senior Bowl made clear, the draft seems like a good place to find a player to fill this need.
Having a Matthew Mulligan-type player is definitely useful in short-yardage and goal line situations, and his current $885,000 contract would be a reasonable deal to bring him back and be used in that way. Although, Detroit could find a way to augment those needs by drafting a player capable of handling those duties.
Previously profiled Lions: Riley Reiff, Anquan Boldin, Dan Orlovsky, Devin Taylor, Rafael Bush, Don Muhlbach, Larry Warford, Andre Roberts, TJ Jones, Kerry Hyder, Jon Bostic, Marvin Jones, Alex Carter, Tim Wright, Armonty Bryant, Clay Harbor, Crezdon Butler