Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew (87) will be counted on to lead a position that includes Joseph Fauria (background) and rookie first-round pick Eric Ebron. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — The Lions drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round this year, and second-year tight end Joseph Fauria has shown improvement as a blocker and could play a bigger role this season, too.
In some ways, former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew, who signed a four-year, $16 million contract this offseason, has become the forgotten man.
But tight ends coach Ron Prince expects Pettigrew to be a centerpiece of the Lions’ powerful offense in his sixth NFL season.
“This guy here is one of the most significant guys on our team,” Prince said. “For us to go where we want to go and accomplish the things we want to accomplish, he was a really big part of that from when we got here and started looking at the tape. I think he’s poised for a really good year.”
Prince described one of the league’s “elite” blocking tight ends, but Pettigrew has also shown improved hands during training camp.
But Pettigrew also has invaluable leadership skills that will help the other young tight ends improve. Prince, who spent 2010-11 as an assistant under coach Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, compared Pettigrew to former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, tight end Dallas Clark and linebacker Gary Brackett, who became even better leaders after signing their second contracts.
“I think at this stage of his career you’ve seen a lot of different things from him,” said Prince, who also praised his diligence in meetings. “I think you’re going to see a very consistent player. You’re going to see a guy who’s focused on leadership.
“When guys start to get in their second contract, you start to see some of that from the guys who are really elite people and personalities, and that’s who he is.”
The Lions have a young tight end room outside the 29-year-old Pettigrew. Ebron is 21, Fauria is 24, Jordan Thompson is 25 and Jacob Maxwell is 23.
“I’m not as vocal. I do get it out there, but I’m a big example guy,” Pettigrew said of his leadership style.
“When something needs to be said, I’ll say it, but we’ve got a good room all the way around. Every guy in there is smart, and they’re taking care of themselves.”
Of course, leadership doesn’t always translate to victories, and Pettigrew knows he has to be more consistent for the Lions to reach their ceiling this year.
According to Pro Football Focus, Pettigrew ranked eighth among tight ends as a pass blocker, but he was tied for 39th as a run blocker.
“There’s still a lot of stuff that I’ve got to clean up,” he said. “There’s always something to work on, but when it’s time to put the pads on and go full tilt, you need to focus in. And as long as you remember your fundamentals, that’s really what gets you through in crunch time.”
With Ebron and Fauria demanding playing time, Pettigrew will be used primarily as a blocker, but if he can show improvement as a receiver, it would make the offense even more dynamic.
Pettigrew’s receiving production has declined in each of the past two years since his career year in 2011. Last season, he had just 41 catches for 416 yards.
Pettigrew also had a drop rate of 8.89 percent in 2013, which was an improvement from 2012, when he dropped 13.24 percent of his catchable targets.
The Lions have put an emphasis on making their tight ends versatile players, which is what makes Pettigrew so valuable. In meetings, Prince shows players highlights of other tight ends from around the league, including Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and Greg Olsen.
What most of those players have in common is their ability to be on the field for three downs.
“I think all teams that want to do something significant have guys like (Pettigrew), and I’m really glad he’s with us,” Prince said.
Prince has even compiled clips of the league’s top tight ends running the same route to show his players how defenses respond to the different style of players.
For Pettigrew, reliability in all phases will be the key in 2014.
“All around just be consistent for my team,” he said. “Be the player that I know I can be for myself and everybody else, and I think we’ll be fine.”