The Detroit Lions had one of the busiest offseasons in the league. They threw around big money in free agency to lock up two offensive lineman for the future. They completely overhauled their front seven on defense. The Lions had nine draft picks and added a handful of undrafted rookies who ended up making the final roster.
But despite all of their flashy moves, it was a dinky one-year contract they handed out that has made the biggest difference through four weeks of the season. Tight end Darren Fells has been the best Lions newcomer this season in Detroit’s first four games.
Fixing a big problem from 2016
Last year, the injury bug hit the Lions tight ends, and they were forced to trot out unproven guys like Cole Wick, Khari Lee, and Matthew Mulligan in spot duty. As a result, the Lions running game suffered and only Eric Ebron was viewed as a receiving threat from the tight end position. For the entire 2016 season, Lions tight ends not named Eric Ebron were responsible for just six catches for 45 yards.
Detroit had a big tight end problem, and they aggressively fought to fix it. Not only did the Lions hand Fells an extremely modest, one-year, $1 million contract, but they also drafted Michael Roberts in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. But the Lions knew Roberts wouldn’t be quite ready to take on a huge role to begin with, so they were placing a heavy burden on Fells.
So how has Fells responded to such high expectations? He’s done magnificently. Here are three reasons he’s been the Lions’ most important addition.
Mitigating the damage from Taylor Decker’s injury
When Taylor Decker left minicamp with a shoulder injury, it seemed like the Lions offensive line was doomed for the foreseeable future. Detroit tried to stop the bleeding by adding former first-round castoff Greg Robinson, but they knew that wasn’t going to be enough.
Sunday was a perfect example of why having a guy like Darren Fells is completely underrated. Fells was able to provide help early and often for Robinson, who was going up against one of the best edge rushers in the league, Everson Griffen. Just watch the very first play and see how valuable Fells was:
Robinson barely has to do anything on this play as Fells stands up Griffen completely on his own. Eventually, Robinson pitches in and together they keep Griffen far away from Matthew Stafford.
Contributing to the run game
While the Lions’ running game is far from “fixed” they have already shown much more promise than they did last season. Through four games, the Lions are averaging 97.0 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. While those numbers are still well below average in the NFL, they represent a small uptick from last year’s production (81.9 yards per game—though they actually averaged 3.7 per carry).
Fells isn’t solely responsible for the improvement; Ameer Abdullah’s health obviously helps. But when looking at the tape, it’s apparent the Lions have been missing a tight end that can block in the running game.
In Justin Rogers’ 10 film observations from the Vikings game, he noted just how much Fells has emerged as a good run blocker:
Fells, as he has since he arrived, showed his blocking abilities in this game, both in space and along the line. He executes down blocks particularly well, driving edge defenders inside on outside runs.
Here’s a perfect example of this, where Fells is again lined up opposite Pro Bowler Everson Griffen (#97):
Effective down blocks by Detroit's two TEs, but Trae Waynes gives up the edge on Abdullah's 29-yarder. pic.twitter.com/hOBLrqBsrN— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) October 3, 2017
A receiving option opposite Eric Ebron
Ebron’s struggles through four weeks have been well documented. Last year, the Lions didn’t have any other receiving options outside of him. This year, everyone expected that player to be rookie Michael Roberts, but it has been Fells who has proven his worth.
In Sunday’s game alone, Fells caught four passes for 40 yards. While that doesn’t seem like a particularly big game for the Lions tight end, every single one of those catches earned the Lions a first down, two of which came on third-and-longs.
All #Lions TEs (excluding Ebron) in 2016: 6 catches, 45 yards— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) October 4, 2017
Darren Fells through 4 games in 2017: 6 catches, 51 yards
Having that dual-threat tight end is something the Lions haven’t been able to boast since Brandon Pettigrew’s first few years in the league.
So while pickups like T.J. Lang, Rick Wagner and Jarrad Davis could all certainly pay off more in the long-term, Fells has made the biggest immediate impact of any new player on the Lions roster.