O'Hara: Pettigrew should be getting more recognition for his performance at tight end

Posted Jun 8, 2012

Brandon Pettigrew has been looking like a winner. Call it dressing for success. He wore an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey to work one day earlier this week, and the beard he’s sporting has grown to a length that resembles one of the Thunder’s young stars.

The beard won’t see a razor and shaving cream soon.

“It’s working for James Harden,” Pettigrew said. “I’m going to keep it on.”

Pettigrew should be getting more recognition on his own merit for his performance at tight end for the Lions. The NFL has gone mad for passing stats, but Pettigrew has gotten lost in the numbers. For some reason, when there is any discussion about the NFL’s top young tight ends, Pettigrew seems to be hiding in plain sight.

His receiving totals get overlooked compared to those compiled by other tight ends – some bigger, some smaller. In his third season last year, Pettigrew set a career-high with 83 catches. He ranked third among all tight ends in the NFL. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham was No. 1 with 99. Next was the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski with 90.

Graham and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez were the two tight ends voted to NFC Pro Bowl team. There can be no argument against either.Gonzalez had 80 catches, fourth most among tight ends last year, and is a certain Hall of Famer with 1,149 career catches in 15 seasons. Gonzalez ranks second on the all-time career list for players at all positions. The incomparable Jerry Rice leads everyone with 1,549.

Pettigrew has made a steady progression. He had 30 catches in a rookie season shortened to 11 games because of a knee injury, 71 in 2010 and his career best last year.

Pettigrew is getting noticed for his all-around play. He is more than a pass-catcher in the Lions’ scheme, which regularly uses two tight ends. Pettigrew is the blocking tight end. He seldom has the luxury of splitting out wide, like most tight ends who put up high receiving totals.

Charlie Sanders, the Lions’ assistant director of pro personnel and a Hall of Fame tight end, thinks Pettigrew is the best all-around tight end in the league.

“Multiple . . . at the top,” Sanders said. “No question. The guys that get the numbers are schemed, in terms of receiving. When you throw in blocking at the point of attack and all that, he’s at the top.

“If you take a combination of all the things that are required for that position, he’d be there.“Those other guys, they scheme them. They flex them out. This offense, it doesn’t require that. We have other guys who do that. From that standpoint, a lot of times he gets overlooked. That’s not in his package.“Not that he couldn’t do it. We don’t ask him to do it.”

There’s one prominent person who appreciates what Pettigrew means to the offense: quarterback Matthew Stafford.

"He's huge," Stafford said. "He had a bunch of catches for us last year. He's always very consistent and is a big red-zone threat. He's a guy on third down that I step up to the line and he's close enough to hear me."

“I give him things and adjustments on routes and he's right there with me mentally." "He's a guy that's not afraid of the big moment and to go make a big play. I know I'm lucky to have him, and we're lucky to have him as a team."

Pettigrew is a natural fan of the Thunder, having played at Oklahoma State. He divides time in the offseason between Texas and Oklahoma City when he isn’t working out at Allen Park.

There is a correlation between how the Thunder have risen to be a power in the NBA and how the Lions have been built.The Thunder are driven by a core of young stars. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 23. Harden is 22.A young core of players could make the Lions consistent playoff contenders for several years. Calvin Johnson, Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, DeAndre Levy, Louis Delmas and Pettigrew all are all 26 or younger.

Pettigrew has two years left on the rookie contract he signed when the Lions drafted him in the first round and 20th overall in 2009 – the same year they drafted Stafford first overall.

For some reason, Pettigrew isn’t always included when the future of the Lions’ young core is discussed, but that does not indicate how he is regarded by the front office.

“He is by us,” said Lions president Tom Lewand.

Pettigrew isn’t pleading for more recognition. It will come, if he keeps producing and the Lions keep winning and playing games on national television.

The one area where he ranks down the list among tight ends is yards per catch. His 9.4-yard average last year ranked 29 among the 30 tight ends who had 30 or more catches.

“Some of them really separate themselves,” Pettigrew said of the NFL’s tight end class. “If you’re going to be a top tight end in this league, that’s what you’ve got to do, is separate yourself.

“I’ve tried, and put forth the effort. It takes work. I’m going to put in more work to get to where some of those top guys are.

“As far as catches and stuff, I’m there. Some guys get a lot of YAC (yards after the catch). The yardage separation is there. I’ve got to put myself there and start making that big play.”