The Detroit Lions offense could look drastically different this season. Although the team retained offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter this offseason, they spent their first two draft picks on that side of the ball in an effort to pull their running game from the basement, and made quite a few other changes on the coaching staff.
Improving the offense was clearly a big goal this spring, but if there’s a position that is no better off than it was last year, it’s at tight end. The Lions cut ties with former 10th-overall pick Eric Ebron and his backup, the versatile Darren Fells. In their place, the Lions added Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo—two guys who have had modest careers thus far as mostly No. 2 guys. Second-year tight end Michael Roberts also returns with fairly high expectations.
Despite the potential downgrade in talent, tight ends may play a more significant role for Detroit in 2018.
Chris Burke of The Athletic spoke to new tight ends coach Chris White earlier this offseason, and White thinks the position could be used more than ever this year.
“The more tight ends on the field, the better, from my perspective,” White told The Athletic. “But I think Matt (Patricia) would echo the same comments.”
Those comments come in response to Burke’s question regarding “13” personnel (one tailback, three tight ends), which former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz recently called one of the toughest formations to defend against. Last year, the Lions barely used any 13 personnel—only 43 total times, according to Burke—and predictably ran 76.7 percent of the time out of that formation.
Part of that may have had to do with the limited versatility with their tight end crew last season. While Darren Fells proved he could be a two-way player as a receiver and blocker, Eric Ebron and Michael Roberts was just too green to rely heavily on in either situation. As a result, the Lions tight ends just didn’t get all that much playing time. Ebron and Fells played just 53 percent of snaps each despite not missing a game, and Roberts only saw the field 21 percent of the time.
But with an increased focus on the running game, the Lions may be more willing to utilize their versatile set of players. While Luke Willson is primarily known for his catching skills (1,129 yards in five years) he has plenty of blocking experience coming from Seattle, where they used him in a fullback/H-back role, relying heavily on his adequate skills as a blocker. Levine Toilolo can also bring it as a blocker, as his former teammate—fullback Patrick DiMarco—once called him “one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.”
Michael Roberts is primarily known as a red zone threat, but the Lions spent his rookie year trying to develop him more as a tradition in-line (Y) tight end.
“He has a physical skill set that’s pretty, pretty unique, in terms of his athletic ability and his size and his flexibility, things like that,” White said earlier this offseason. “We’re just trying to get him more on the line, being the ‘Y’ tight end right now, and seeing if he can progress from there.”
It may seem a little counterintuitive for the Lions to rely more heavily on their tight ends this year, especially considering that in addition to the Lions’ slight downgrade in talent at the position, they also have an abundance of talent at running back and receiver. Taking those players off the field for a ragtag group of tight ends seems dangerous.
But if the Lions are serious about legitimizing a running game, tight ends are going to play a key role. And while the talent may not be jaw-dropping, the skillset of each tight end may be enough to help the running game, while also bringing the versatility to improve the Lions’ already impressive play-action efficiency.
“The play-action pass game, the run game … if we can get ‘13,’ ‘22’ personnel in the game and establish a physical presence with our run game, I think that’s going to help everyone,” White said. “The run game, the pass game, everyone.”