Barring a change before the season, the 2018 Detroit Lions are expected to open with former Seattle Seahawks reserve Luke Willson installed as the starting tight end.
In five seasons for the ‘Hawks, Willson backed up Jimmy Graham and Zach Miller. In 2014, an injury to Miller led to Willson starting 10 games. He finished with a personal-best 23 receptions for 362 yards and a trio of touchdowns. He finished his Seahawks tenure with 89 grabs for 1,129 yards and 11 scores, capped by an efficient 15-153-4 slash in ’17.
Willson is no stranger to missing time of his own, most serious of all was a knee injury that cost him more than a month in 2016. He has failed to complete a 16-game slate in three of his five years.
In Detroit, the Lions feature a trio of talented wide receivers and one of football’s best third-down receiving backs. The positional depth among tight ends features a fellow newcomer in Levine Toilolo. He comes from Atlanta and is a big-bodied blocker whose hands are suspect. The Lions spent fourth-round pick in 2017 on the versatile Michael Roberts. He is a powerful blocker and led the nation in touchdown receptions (16) by a tight end in 2016 playing for Toledo. Roberts caught just four passes in 2017.
Eric Ebron is out, Willson is in. However, this may not be a clear-cut replacement situation. The veteran has to fend off Roberts, and Detroit has more incentive to see the younger Roberts win the job after spending a pick on him.
Ebron was targeted 86 times in 16 games last year (5.4 per week) and 85 in 13 contests the previous year (6.5) in the same system. Willson is highly unlikely to see that many looks without an injury to Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and/or Theo Riddick. The most probable scenario is Willson will see targets in the red zone, where Ebron saw 12 targets last year (four receptions, two TDs). Seven of those 12 looks came inside of the 10.
Fantasy football takeaway
Willson is a strong blocker and an underrated receiver. Assuming he keeps Roberts at bay, fantasy owners could utilize Willson with the right matchup. He really isn’t worth drafting in conventional setups but could be a flier in deep leagues of 18 or more rostered players, as well as being a best-ball option. DFS players may find themselves deploying Willson a time or two in ’18.