ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) – Brandon Pettigrew is Detroit’s forgotten first-round pick.
On a team that includes young stars such as Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, Pettigrew is coming into his own.
The 26-year-old tight end has started to produce exactly as the Lions expected when they took him a few picks after Stafford in 2009.
“When you think about tight ends in the league – guys making big catches over the middle in key moments, especially these first four games – you’ve got to put Brandon in there. Period, hands down,” receiver Nate Burleson said.
“If you look at how we get from 20 to 20 – how we get to the red zone, Brandon’s name is going to come up a lot in the stat sheet.”
Fresh off an 0-16 season, the Lions began rebuilding when they took Stafford with the top overall pick in the 2009 draft. After securing their franchise quarterback, Detroit picked Pettigrew in a bit of a surprise at No. 20.
The Oklahoma State product started 11 games as a rookie, even catching the winning touchdown pass with no time remaining in a victory over Cleveland.
In a Thanksgiving game against Green Bay, however, Pettigrew injured his left knee and needed season-ending surgery.
“You’re forced to be patient when you’re injured, but it’s tough, especially when you’re a true competitor,” Pettigrew said. “I just had to deal with it and get back.”
When the 2010 season began, Pettigrew was ready. He started all 16 games, catching 71 passes for 722 yards and four touchdowns, and the Lions began to show some improvement, winning their final four games to finish 6-10.
That streak isn’t over yet. Detroit is 4-0 this season and hosting Chicago on Monday night.
The Lions have added more high draft picks. They took Suh at No. 2 overall in 2010 to bolster their defensive line, while also nabbing running back Jahvid Best in the first round last year.
It’s easy to forget about Pettigrew, but he’s working his way into that group of indispensable young players. He has 22 catches this season, only two fewer than Calvin Johnson’s team-leading total.
“We drafted him because he’s a multidimensional tight end,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “He’s a guy that can block and he can get down the field and he can catch a ball in short area and stuff like that. … He’s a very important part of our offense. Our tight ends and running backs are key to how they want to play Calvin and our other wide receivers.”
At 6 feet 5, 265 pounds, Pettigrew can block in addition to breaking out on pass patterns. Although fans tend to notice him more when the ball is in his hands, the offensive linemen consider Pettigrew one of them, too.
“I think we relate to him a little more, because he’s such a big dude,” center Dominic Raiola said. “He’s growing up in a big way, emerging as one of the leaders of this offense.”
As the Lions prepare for their first Monday night game in a decade, they’re looking forward to the chance to show off their diverse offensive repertoire.
With Stafford healthy after two injury-filled seasons, the Lions can pass the ball with seemingly any team around – and Johnson isn’t the only target defenses have to worry about.
Best is a threat out of the backfield, Burleson has 16 catches, and even Titus Young – a second-round pick this year – is already showing promise.
Opposing teams can’t spend too much time worrying about Pettigrew – but he’s quick to make them pay if they lose track of him.
“We do have a young team. We’ve got great leadership in guys like (defensive lineman Kyle) Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson,” Pettigrew said. “Right now we’re clicking.”
Notes: The Lions are trying for their first 5-0 start since 1956 – the year before their most recent NFL championship. … DT Nick Fairley, a first-round pick this year, was limited in practice Thursday. Schwartz has been noncommittal this week about whether Fairley will finally make his debut after injuring his left foot before the season.
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