Second-year tight end Michael Roberts was once a dangerous pass-catcher in college, but will he be able to fill that role for the Detroit Lions?
The Detroit Lions have had a lot of inconsistency at the tight end position over the last few seasons. They selected tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the 2014 draft, with the expectation that he and tight end Brandon Pettigrew would be factors in the passing game.
Instead, both players underperformed during their careers with the Lions, leaving the team to look for a new player to fill the position.
Enter tight end Michael Roberts. The 2017 fourth-round pick out of the University of Toledo was a reliable weapon throughout college, especially in the red zone. Standing tall at 6-foot-5 and with hands that measure nearly a foot long from fingertip-to-fingertip, he was able to haul in 70 catches for 832 yards and 22 touchdowns over four seasons.
His senior season with the Toledo Rockets, he found his way into the endzone 16 times, with all but one of those scores coming from inside the 20-yard line. The Lions have constantly struggled in the red-zone, and bringing in a dynamic pass-catcher like Roberts was supposed to be a solution to that problem.
Instead, Roberts had a very disappointing rookie year, buried on the depth chart behind Ebron and blocking tight end Darren Fells. He finished his first NFL season with only four catches for a mere 46 yards and didn’t reach the endzone once. To cap off the rough start to his career, the tight end was not allowed to participate in the final game of the season due to sleeping in and missing team meetings.
Coming into the 2018 season, Roberts’ future with the team seemed unclear. Tight ends Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo were brought in to replace Ebron and Fells, who signed elsewhere in the offseason. The Lions also brought in several other tight ends to compete for the final spots in the position group.
Roberts ended up making the cut as the third tight end on the roster behind Willson and Toilolo, with tight end Hakeem Valles also making it in due to an impressive training camp. Throughout the first half of the season, none of these players have been able to define their role or lock down the starting spot.
Valles was cut, signed to the practice squad, and then released and not re-signed. Willson and Toilolo have brought in 11 catches for 75 yards and four catches for 31 yards respectively, with neither player finding the endzone.
Though he struggled with injury for parts of the season, Roberts has begun to emerge as an option for quarterback Matthew Stafford, especially in the red-zone. His first three catches of the season went for touchdowns, and he now has five total receptions for 75 yards on the season.
Roberts is still has a long way to go before he can become a prominent part of the passing game in Detroit. While he has had more production than his fellow tight ends on the roster, he has the least amount of snaps out of the three of them. Currently, it appears that the Lions are keeping a rotation going at the position with all three players getting time on the field.
Nobody in the position group has been a contributor to this offense, but now that wide receiver Golden Tate has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, there is an open opportunity for the tight ends to get more involved and make up for the loss in the receiving corps.
Michael Roberts has shown huge signs of improvement in his second year with the Detroit Lions. All he can do now is get open and catch what’s thrown at him. He’s proven that he still can be used as a red-zone threat and use his size to his advantage to get points on the board, but now he just needs to bring consistency to his play. Hopefully, he will begin to look like the player he was in college and become the reliable touchdown-scoring tight end that the Lions so desperately need.