On several occasions during his tenure, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz has emphasized the importance of drafting players with a specific role in mind for the team's scheme. In researching our 2011 All-NFC North team, it became clear that tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a prime example of that philosophy.
I chose Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley over Pettigrew for the team, but that shouldn't diminish Pettigrew's fundamental importance to the Lions' offense. The Lions drafted Pettigrew with the No. 20 overall pick in 2009, the highest selection for a tight end in the past five years. In 2011, we found out explicitly why a rebuilding team had prioritized what is normally a complementary position.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has a long history of utilizing tight ends in the passing game, and one of his primary philosophies is to use the same personnel in various sets to limit the ability of defenses to match up. Pettigrew has ably filled the role of a reliable, if unspectacular, workhorse under those parameters.
The Lions used Pettigrew in 2011 as much as any team in the NFL used their top tight end. He was on the field for 1,043 snaps -- more than every tight end except the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski -- and played the fifth-highest percentage of his team's snaps (94.5).
The Lions targeted Pettigrew on 115 passes, tied for the third-highest total among NFL tight ends, and his 83 receptions also ranked third.
In choosing Finley, I noted that he was used in a lower-percentage scheme that featured more downfield passes. Pettigrew, on the other hand, was in many ways an extension of the Lions' running game.
But that's the point, isn't it? Pettigrew demonstrated the diversity required in the Lions' scheme. It requires a level of pass-catching skill to haul in 83 passes, no matter how short they are. And because he is more than an adequate blocker, there was never a reason to take him off the field. As a result, Pettigrew's presence never tips off a defense about an upcoming play call.
On another team or in a different scheme, drafting Pettigrew in the first round would have been a luxury. But the Lions insisted he would be an integral part of their approach, and in 2011 he was.