It’s time to critically rethink what the Lions want to do at tight end, and it starts with Willson.
The Lions, of course, annihilated their tight end corps during the last offseason, dumping Eric Ebron so he could go on to have a record-setting year in Indianapolis, and Darren Fells so he could do whatever he did this year. In their place remained Michael Roberts , who was quickly glued together with free agents Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson .
Did it work? Reader, I assure you it did not.
General manager Bob Quinn has admitted by now that the position was the scraps of a failed run to procure talent. It’s well expected that we’ll see a massive overhaul at the position before the 2019 season starts, barring another strikeout by Quinn in this area.
Expectations before 2018
With the tight end position needing to rebuild overnight, Willson , signed by the team for $2.5 million, was expected to provide at least a serviceable weapon for Matthew Stafford. Willson himself said he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a given role , and it would seem the Lions agreed; they needed Willson to play a jack-of-all-trades role at tight end.
However, given the lack of options available for Detroit, it would be hard to fault one for believing Willson may have become the starting option at tight end. He had starter experience, having filled in for Zach Miller early in his career, and reports out of training camp indicated that Willson was in a comfortable position to lead the pack.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 14 games (8 starts): 13 receptions, 87 yards (no touchdowns)
PFF Grade: 55.3 (ranked 58th)
Whatever Willson is capable of as an offensive weapon, however modest, 2018 did not prove to be a year where this potential was tapped. Willson averaged only 6.2 receiving yards per game, the lowest of his career (he averaged 9.6 in 2017 and double-digit yards every season prior). He failed to break 100 yards for the season and offered no touchdowns, both career firsts.
Part of his disappointing 2018 season may be a lack of use. Willson was rarely targeted, with only two games where he was targeted more than twice. In the second half of the year, prior to Willson’s brain injury, the Lions selected Roberts and Toilolo more for passing options.
In blocking, Willson saw little use. He was on the field on just 31 snaps in a pass blocking role, compared to 455 blocking snaps for Toilolo.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
Usage seems to indicate the Lions are not likely to bring Willson back for 2019. Quinn’s statements about striking out on tight end free agents seems to also indicate that Willson was not a top option for the team, and performance and use may reinforce that.
Of the existing tight ends, whatever use Willson may have served was upended by Toilolo and, to a lesser extent, Roberts. He became the odd-man-out, never quite filling the yawning abyss the Lions left for themselves at the position.
It’s hard to envision Willson coming back given abysmal use by the coaching staff, but the possibility remains he could be looked into for a backup role, or leaned on for another contract if the Lions strike out on free agent signings again. Willson’s future in Detroit is further complicated by the addition of new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who knows what Willson is capable and how to use him.
Whether Willson would want to take such a paycut or accept this reduced role—particularly at age 29—remains to be seen.