Are the Lions for real? Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers look at the Lions as they roll into Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field. Detroit News
Allen Park — At 6-foot-7, tight end Darren Fells hardly blends in on the field or in the locker room as one of the tallest players on the Lions’ roster.
Yet the self-described “chameleon” is in the midst of a new chapter of his athletic career in Detroit.
After spending four years playing professional basketball overseas, Fells returned stateside and carved out a role as dependable run-blocker the past three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
But when general manager Bob Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell courted him as a free agent during the offseason, the first thing they talked about was their surprise Fells, 31, wasn’t being utilized more as a receiving threat.
“They said height-wise it was a must that they can just throw the ball up to me and use my basketball ability to go up and get the rebound as they say,” Fells said Wednesday before practice. “Just coming in, they definitely told me that they want to use me more than just blocking. Obviously blocking is the biggest thing first.
“For me, it’s a lot of fun to be able to come in here and try to do things and turn people’s heads that this old man can still do a couple things.”
Throughout OTAs and training camp, the team tested out what routes suited Fells’ athletic ability. And in last weekend’s 14-7 win over the Vikings, he put his receiver skills on display and finished with a career-high tying four receptions for 40 yards.
While his catches came on delayed passes and checkdowns, Fells’ ability to engage in blocks and effectively shed them brings another element to an offense that already has no shortage of receiving options, including fellow tight ends Eric Ebron and rookie Michael Roberts.
“It’s definitely a huge weapon, especially since I’m seen as a blocking tight end first,” Fells said. “They’re (opposing defenses) not going to really, I guess, respect me at that aspect, so that helps me get open a lot more since I don’t have the speed that Ebron has to get open.”
Fells said he feels like he’s 25 since he played basketball — not football — for four years at UC-Irvine and doesn’t have the typical wear and tear on his body that most NFL players do. He added the hand-eye coordination and footwork required in basketball have translated to his position, and it shows.
Through four games, Fells has caught six of the seven passes thrown his way for 51 yards. He’s on pace to set a career high in receptions, a mark he set during his most productive season in 2015 with 21 catches for 311 yards and three touchdowns.
While Fells joked he would tell his point guard to get him the ball more following a performance like he had last week, he said he’s going to continue to embrace and attack whatever job he’s given. But he also wouldn’t object to running some more routes.
“I think that obviously he’s a good athlete from his days playing basketball. He knows how to position his body and things of that nature,” Caldwell said. “He’s also a very good in-line blocker. But he has athleticism. He can catch the ball and tuck it away and get up the field. He’s a load when he gets his shoulders square. So, he’s really coming along.
“When we first had an opportunity to look at him in the spring, we certainly felt that he would be a factor in the pass game. I think he’s still developing in that area with us.”