After sluggish start, Lions' tight ends vow to be a factor

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News

Allen Park — Through two preseason games, a Detroit Lions position group short on career production has been front and center in the team’s struggles.

With two weeks left until the regular season, the tight ends are confident things will turn around for both the unit and offense starting with Friday night at Tampa Bay.

Lions tight end Marcus Lucas has four catches for 23 yards, while other players in the position group -- Luke Willson, Michael Roberts, and Levine Toilolo -- have not made much of an impact.

“We’ll definitely be a factor, whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,” Michael Roberts said. “There’s a lot of stuff based around us. There might be a little experience, but we’ll definitely be a big impact for the Detroit Lions this year.”

The results have not been good so far, as Roberts, Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo have combined for two catches and 19 yards. For the long-struggling run game, inconsistency has continued.

Further down the depth chart, Hakeem Valles (four catches, 31 yards) and Marcus Lucas (four catches, 23 yards) have made plays, perhaps playing their way into roster or practice squad consideration.
When coach Matt Patricia was asked about the group’s inability to stretch the field — the longest preseason tight end catch has gone for 14 yards — he said the coaching staff is still evaluating each player’s strengths.

“You just try to figure out what do they do best and try to put them in the situation to be able to do that and to achieve, and that’s the most important thing,” Patricia said.

“If you ask players to do stuff they can’t do, they’re going to try their best to do it. But at some point, if it doesn’t fit what they are, then you have to understand that, you’ve got to adjust and put them in position to succeed.”

More: Lions could be eligible for 'Hard Knocks' in 2019

More: Banged-up T.J. Lang confident he can be ready for Lions in Week 1

Willson, of Windsor, and Toilolo came over as free agents after five seasons with their original teams. Willson caught 89 passes in Seattle and Toilolo had 74 receptions in Atlanta. Roberts had four catches for 46 yards for the Lions as a fourth-round pick last season out of Toledo.

“We’re grinding, man. It’s a competitive environment here,” Willson said. “It’s been kind of neat to see how we’ve all bonded in a short period of time. We’ve all been pushing each other, but it’s all been supportive. As a group, we have an ability to do a lot of different things.

“This league, if you’re dwelling on last week, it’s going to get you. Last week didn’t go to plan, there’s no secret about that, but we flushed it. On to Tampa Bay. We’ve got to put a good one together and see what happens.”

Patricia also said Friday will give the Lions another look at the running backs, who have combined for 136 yards on 38 carries through two games. LeGarrette Blount has 16 carries through three games, Kerryon Johnson had 11, Ameer Abdullah had six, Zach Zenner had four, and Theo Riddick had one.

“We’re trying to put guys in different positions in both of those first two games, but also in practices,” Patricia said. “We’re certainly just trying to get all of them enough equal amounts of time.

Mitten men

Michiganders traveling south to Florida is nothing new.

The Lions will be up against several snowbirds with Michigan ties on Friday night, including one of their own draft picks from last season.

Defensive end Patrick O’Connor, a seventh-round pick from Eastern Michigan, was released before last season by the Lions and played three games for Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay has two others from EMU in wide receiver Sergio Bailey and offensive tackle Cole Gardner.

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken coached for the Eagles from 1993-99.

Michigan State’s Riley Bullough (Traverse City), a linebacker, and William Gholston (Detroit), a defensive end, are backups on the defense.

Other Michigan natives include Central Michigan’s Amari Coleman (Flint) and wide receiver Jake Lampman, a Ferris State product from Haslett.

Coleman briefly was with the Lions, signing as an undrafted free agent shortly after the NFL Draft.

Rookie rut

The Bucs took Ronald Jones II with the 38th overall selection in the second round of April’s draft, five picks before the Lions selected Johnson.

While the Lions rookie running back from Auburn has shown flashes through two preseason games, Tampa Bay’s rookie from USC has not yet found the open field.

Jones, billed as an explosive threat in the pass and run game, has rushed 12 times for 11 yards for one touchdown. He has no catches on two targets. 

Jones’ struggles, coupled with injuries to Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, Seattle’s Rashaad Penny and Washington’s Derrius Guice represent a slow start for the featured running backs of the rookie class.

The group has a tough act to follow after the breakout rookie seasons a year ago from running backs such as Alvin Kamara of New Orleans, Leonard Fournette of Jacksonville, Kareem Hunt of Kansas City and Christian McCaffrey of Carolina.

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.