Few players played the difficult position as well as the former Lion who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. Sanders was the tight end on the 1970s all-decade NFL team. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl seven times. In 10 seasons with Detroit, Sanders caught 336 passes and gained a reputation as an outstanding blocker.
These days, the Lions have another tight end who is quickly becoming worthy of being compared to Sanders.
"Right now, I think he's the most complete tight end in the league," Sanders said after
"A lot of people have brought up the fact that he has some drops, but if you put together the passing game and the running game, take some of those people who haven't had as many drops and put them in the point of attack in the running game they couldn't do that. So if you count missed blocks as drops and put that in the equation, I think he's a complete tight end."
Pettigrew and Sanders both agree that the former Oklahoma State standout who was the Lions' second first-round pick in 2009 isn't close to where he can be in a couple of years.
"I think I've developed well this year, but I definitely could have done better," Pettigrew said. "I have a ton of stuff to work on during the offseason just to become a more consistent player.
"I thought my blocking was better this year. And I was better catching the ball, too. I caught a ton of balls and made a lot of plays -- but I still have to be more consistent. That comes with repetition. It's the only thing you can do. Just do it over and over until you do the same thing every time."
Sanders would like to see Pettigrew work on his catching technique.
"There are a few things that he has to do," Sanders said. "A lot of players who have great hand-eye coordination take a lot for granted, like tucking (the ball) in and putting it away. That's something he can concentrate on during the offseason and become an even better receiver.
"There really haven't been that many drops, it's just that people remember the crucial ones. He's had a great year."
Most folks don't notice how big a part Pettigrew has played in the Lions' improved running game.
One person who has is left tackle
"You know he's going to take care of his job," Backus said. "He's an extra offensive lineman when we need him. He also had incredible pass-catching ability. He's an all-around tight end.
"He's a big part of the running game. We ask a lot of him. He's a difference maker on offense, both in the run game and the passing game. We wouldn't have been as successful on offense without him. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. He's a quiet guy, like I am, but he steps up and makes the plays when he needs to."
Blocking is something that Pettigrew takes pride in. It's been that way since he started playing football.
"It really started in high school," Pettigrew said. "In college I had to work a lot on my footwork. I had to get my feet just right."
Pettigrew worked with former Cowboys teammate Charlie Johnson, who started at Oklahoma State as a tight end, but moved to tackle as a senior and is now a starter on the Indianapolis offensive line.
"He worked with me a lot on my feet and hands," Pettigrew said. "It's something I started to take pride in. When I've got the ball I want people to block for me, so I try to do the same."
That's something Sanders notices, too.
"A lot of tight ends don't want to line up against defensive ends," Sanders said. "This guy takes them on like it's an everyday thing. That's a very difficult responsibility to block a defensive end in this league.
"He doesn't make crucial mistakes, blatant errors, especially in the running game. Everybody can run a route and catch a pass, but I think this guy quietly enjoys being part of the running game. I have a great amount of respect for the kid. He works hard and is conscientious about everything he does on that field."
What makes Pettigrew's 2010 season even more remarkable is that he suffered a serious knee injury in last year's Thanksgiving Day game and spent a good part of the offseason in rehab.
"I just couldn't jump into my offseason routine," he said. "I had to get the knee right. I had to pace myself a little bit, but this year I can jump right into it. My goal was not to miss any games this year. I had a lot of help from (running back)
Pettigrew's 71 receptions are more than any tight end in Lions history. He's the fifth tight end in franchise history to accumulate 100 receptions and 1,000 yards in a career. He is the quickest to reach 100 catches, achieving the milestone in 27 games. Jim Gibbons held the previous mark of 34 games.
Only Sanders reached 1,000 receiving yards faster than Pettigrew, who did it in 26 games. It took Sanders 25 games to record 1,000 yards.
Pettigrew probably deserved a spot on the Pro Bowl roster but those spots went to Jason Witten of Dallas and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, two veterans whose body of work over several seasons was likely considered.
"I wanted to make that Pro Bowl," Pettigrew said. "It's going to happen. I'm going to keep working on it."