Matthew Mulligan gets another shot with Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Lions tight end Matthew Mulligan works off the offensive line during drills.

In 81 career games in the NFL, tight end Matthew Mulligan has just 17 catches.

The Lions became the 10th team to give Mulligan a chance this year, and even though he’s bounced around the league during the past nine years, he’s not thinking about his lackluster statistics.

“To be honest, I’ve never worried about it,” he said last week. “It’s nine years, so it’s like, what’s the big deal? It doesn’t really matter to me.

“Everybody does something really well, and the thing I’ve always tried to tell people is the fact that if you do something really well, you try to make that the best thing you can do. And if you can do it better than anyone else, you’ll have a job.”

So, Mulligan tries to block better than anyone else, and his ability to take on defensive ends in the run game is a trait that could help him stick with the Lions this season.

Behind starter Eric Ebron, there are major questions about the Lions’ tight ends this season. Brandon Pettigrew has been the primary blocking option the past two years — 17 total catches — after Ebron arrived, but he’s still recovering for December surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and will likely start training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Besides Ebron and Pettigrew, Mulligan is the only tight end on the roster with NFL experience even if he’s more of an old-school option.

“When I first came here, the (players) thought I was an offensive lineman,” he said.

The Lions list Mulligan at 267 pounds, but he said he’s about 285. Coming out of Maine in 2008, Mulligan weighed 256 pounds. The Dolphins signed him as an undrafted free agent, and when he realized Miami already had two receiving focused tight ends, Anthony Fasano and David Martin, he started turning his attention to blocking and special teams.

By Year 4, Mulligan said he was up to 270 pounds, and he’s kept adding weight.

“I’ve always felt like if you’re going to ask me to block big defensive ends like guys like Julius Peppers or Ziggy (Ansah), guys like that, I want to have some weight on because they understand what I’m doing,” Mulligan said. “I’m blocking. They don’t think I’m going out for a route, so they play me really physical and I want to have that weight to back myself up.”

Clearly, he found a fan in coach Rex Ryan, who coached Mulligan from 2009-11 with the New York Jets and then again in 2015 with Buffalo.

Ryan’s teams have been among the most run-heavy in the NFL, which explains why Mulligan had value. The Lions are hoping to be more efficient in the run game this year, too, and unless Pettigrew is ready for Week 1, Mulligan will likely be the best run-blocking tight end on the roster — and there’s a chance he’ll be a better option even when Pettigrew is healthy.

Regardless of Mulligan’s role, or whether or not he makes the 53-man roster, he’s a rare option at a position where most of the top players are between 250 and 265 pounds.

“You find a lot more guys that are more pass-oriented tight ends than guys that can handle in-line blocking,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “So, I think they’re rare guys at this point in time. They’re just tough to find, but I know there would probably be more teams with them if there were more of them out there that can do what he does.”

Of course, one reason teams don’t use bigger tight ends as much these days is the increased use of extra offensive linemen between the 20s. The Lions have regularly used an extra tackle to block in recent years, so even though Mulligan might look like one of the top options at tight end, he’s competing against linemen for playing time, too.

“Unless you’re a bona fide starter, you’re competing against everybody,” he said. “So you have to be able to prove your worth. Like, look, I’m not just a luxury. I’m not something that you’d like to have; I’m something that you guys need moving forward. And that’s also contributing on special teams and doing whatever they ask me to do.”