ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Throughout last season, Brandon Pettigrew didn’t want to talk about the looming offseason and where things could be headed.
He preferred to stay focused on the present, on his fifth year with the Detroit Lions and trying to turn himself into one of the NFL’s top multi-purpose tight ends. He was in a contract year, but tried not to worry much about that.
He would deflect all of those questions and say he wasn’t concerned about it. That he would deal with it after his season ended. Now he has no choice. Free agency is a month away and the team’s decision on whether to pursue re-signing Pettigrew is one of the biggest left for the team after they chose to bring back center Dominic Raiola on a one-year deal.
Throughout his five years in Detroit, Pettigrew has gained the trust of Matthew Stafford, but has also had streaks of inconsistency where he dropped passes. He improved in that area last season. He had a career-low in drops in 2013 (four) but that also came with the fewest receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns since his rookie season in 2009.
It wasn’t that he was being shuffled out of the Lions' offense as he played 925 of 1,158 snaps according to Pro Football Focus and started every game until an ankle injury in Week 15 against Baltimore ended his season. But with a young offensive line and more of a focus on the running game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, the team needed him to run block and pass protect just as much as they needed him to run routes.
His dual ability could lead Detroit to decide it wants to try and keep the 28-year-old Texan. He was, by far, the most well-rounded tight end on the Lions' roster last season as rookie Joseph Fauria was more of a route-runner and pass-catcher and Dorin Dickerson was a fill-in replacement when Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who was released, were injured.
And Lions new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi values what Pettigrew is able to do.
“It’s important to have a guy that can block the point of attack,” Lombardi said. “That’s important. A lot of teams are going to back-or-forth these days and you need a tight end that can hold up against those guys. And then, you want a guy who can be a pass receiver so you’re always looking for those well-rounded guys.
“But, again, I’ve never been in a mode of I want to define exactly what this player is and then you have to go find him for me. Go find the best player you can. And if it is Jimmy Graham, we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’re going to find plays to help him be successful . When it was Jeremy Shockey, we might have had a little different philosophy with his strengths and weakness. So you want a guy who is a great blocker and a great receiver, obviously, and those guys are rare and hard to find.”
Pettigrew, theoretically, is one of those guys and his potential free-agent value could force the Lions to look somewhere else to replace him.
That could be in the draft, although Detroit has bigger needs than addressing the tight end spot in the first round. But if North Carolina’s Eric Ebron or Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins were available in the second round, it could be worth a pick investment. Same with Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third or fourth rounds.
Of these players, Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas could be the two most intriguing prospects -- although Ebron is the most talented pass-catching tight end in the draft.
If the Lions choose to re-sign Pettigrew, it would be unlikely the team would also draft a tight end.
The other option, of course, is free agency. While Graham could be the marquee name there, it is highly unlikely he reaches free agency. Even if he did, he would be well out of the Lions' price range. The non-Graham options in the free-agent pool aren't huge names, but there are some players who could fit.
Dennis Pitta played for Jim Caldwell in Baltimore and has shown to be a combination tight end when he was healthy in 2011 and 2012. Dallas Clark also played for Caldwell, but he is 33 years old and probably not worth an investment at this point.
Dustin Keller, the former New York Jet and current Miami Dolphin, is a free agent and after the knee injury that ended his 2013 season in the preseason, he could be available cheap on a one-year deal. That would give the team a chance to figure out whether or not Fauria or Michael Williams, the seventh-round pick last year that ended up on injured reserve, could grow into the full-time starter role. Keller had a $4.25 million cap number in 2013, but after the injury he could be looking for a spot to prove himself again.
While these are some of the potential options, the main thing for the Lions in the next few days and weeks is figuring out how much Pettigrew is worth to them as an organization and whether or not they can find someone to replace him.