Lions find new red zone (and fantasy) option in TE Michael Roberts

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Michael Roberts didn’t know. He had gone through practice all week, working full speed but not full speed, so he had a clue at where he was coming off a knee injury. But he couldn’t be sure.

There are just some things that can’t get tested until you’re in a live football game, particularly in-season. What it’s like to be hit. What it’s like to cut and pivot. To have to get to the ball or else it could cost your team greatly. The Detroit Lions tight end had confidence he could do those things -- the second-year pro is always confident -- but until he lined up against Miami, he wasn’t positive.

Then he caught one touchdown. And another. And in the span of three quarters, the former fourth-round pick was back to where he was before a knee injury sidelined him for the past three games. If not better.

“It meant a lot, honestly,” Roberts said. “I haven’t had a [multiple-]touchdown game since college, and just, the way that my career started off and the momentum I had before this injury, it just meant ... it just meant the world.

“It just put me in a comfort. A confident place, which is something that you can have confidence, but until you see success on the field, it’s hard to build on that.”

Based off Sunday, when Roberts became more of a receiving option in the Lions' passing game than any other tight end this season, there is something to work with. Coming out of Toledo, the potential always existed. He was a 6-foot-4 reliable red zone target with a knack for the end zone -- 16 touchdowns on 45 receptions his final year with the Rockets -- but as a rookie he did little. He often played behind since-departed Eric Ebron and Darren Fells, so the opportunity didn’t exist.

The possibility for his future, though, is part of the reason the Lions felt they could afford to cut Ebron in the offseason, even if Roberts hadn’t reached his capabilities. Training camp wasn’t great, either. He dealt with an ankle injury and was shaky enough to appear closer to the roster fringe than to any sort of tangible breakout.

Then the regular season started. Progress came. He had a touchdown in Week 2 -- the same game in which a knee injury he suffered sidelined him for the next three games until this past Sunday. Despite playing in only half of Detroit’s games, Roberts has almost as many receiving yards (63) as the other Detroit tight ends combined (67). And his size and quickness at 260 pounds -- something he’s quite proud of -- make him a different type of tight end from the others on Detroit’s roster.

He’s agile. He’s relatively fast. And he has the body and hands to become a potential difference-maker.

“It adds another guy in the middle that they have to try and take care of,” receiver Marvin Jones Jr. said. “We have so many guys out there in terms of running and pass catching that they have to try and check. When we have him like that, going out there, making those big plays, that’s big.

“It’s really, we just have to continue to do what we do, go out there and work every day, and we know what we can be when we turn it up like that, and we just have to keep doing it.”

Sunday was a strong example of what Detroit’s offense is capable of. The run game had its best day since 1997. Matthew Stafford completed 81.8 percent of his passes – targeting eight different players. Even though the Lions have three standout receivers and an emerging star at running back, it was Roberts who led Detroit in receiving yards (48) and touchdowns (two).

Just another option in an offense starting to become full of them. And one with a strong understanding of what it means to score touchdowns. It’s why, after he scored twice against the Dolphins, it took a second for him to figure out how to express what that really felt like.

“For me, it’s hard to explain how I feel. It’s one of my happiest places,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Oh s---, hell yeah, I’m the s---, we the s---, everybody’s the s---. It’s just having fun, enjoying those moments.

“Not only enjoying those moments but getting the opportunity to do it again and doing it again.”

Based off Sunday -- and based off how the Lions appear to be using Roberts -- there’s a chance it’ll start happening more often. And that, combined with all of Detroit’s other playmakers, could become devastating for opposing defenses.