In this series, I’ll be looking at the Lions position-by-position, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and looking at what options are available in free agency. This is the second part of a two part look at one of the more complicated position groups on the team, wide receiver. If you have not yet read part one, you can find it by clicking here. Join me again as I break down the fourth position I’ll be looking at…
WIDE RECEIVER (Part Two)
We now come to what is, in my opinion, likely to be the reason Megatron is considering retirement: the possession work. This is the role that needs to be filled even if Megatron does come back. Increasingly over time, the Lions have been using Megatron in the role of the big bodied possession receiver. Partially because teams worked so hard to take away the deep opportunities leaving underneath routes more open to him, and partially because he has been slowed by injuries at times leaving him unable to make the circus catch 40 yards downfield. We’ve all seen the play a hundred times in the last two years: Calvin manhandles the corner at the line of scrimmage and bolts ten yards, pushing the safety back with the mere threat of his speed. He breaks in, leaving the corner scrambling to keep up and makes the catch on a ball that’s a little too high/low/behind him/he has to dive for. He gets jackhammered in the ribs by a linebacker but holds on to the ball, an eleven yard gain, first down, then he comes off for a play or two while the team runs the ball ineffectively. When there is talk of teams triple-teaming Calvin Johnson, this is what they are referring to, that corner was there to stop him from getting off the line cleanly and to shadow him, that safety was there to prevent the fact that Megatron was just faster than the corner from making every play a touchdown, and the linebacker is cheating toward that route, because neither the corner nor the safety have any chance to stop it in most cases without allowing deep routes to be open. There are guys that have made careers primarily on being the guy willing to run this route and get killed, and it’s a shame that the Lions never brought any of them in to take the pressure off Megatron, forcing him in to a role that could easily have been filled by any number of lesser players. Particularly with the blocking inadequacies on the line making the deep ball largely irrelevant, this became Johnson’s role as it was the easiest way to get the ball in to his hands.
The Lions desperately need a wide receiver who can do this job, whether Johnson comes back or not. If Megatron is still on the roster, a way to keep his health preserved is to bring in a guy to take some of this punishment for him. Fully healthy, 70-catch Megatron is definitely a more useful player than 65% healthy 100-catch Megatron. If he was used less in this role, he could end with similar yardage on fewer catches, taking less wear, and still being available to take a game or two over in the fourth quarter when it mattered. If there were a competent receiver taking over this job, adding those 30 catches to Lance Moore’s 29 in 2015, the Lions then have a reason to pay another guy. This is how the Lions can actually have a rational sounding conversation with Calvin Johnson on why he should take less money and come back this season, which is probably the only way he is in a Lions uniform this year. This is the conversation that the Cardinals had with Larry Fitzgerald to keep him from retiring, and he’s been an extremely useful player for them despite his declining numbers; when they really need a play he’s there to give it to them. That’s the model that the Lions need to look at when discussing the future with Calvin Johnson.
#1 Anquon Boldin, San Francisco 49ers
He has played for three separate franchises in the Super Bowl, and that kind of veteran leadership is worth spending money on for a couple years despite declining production only if Johnson isn’t in the picture. He’s not going to be looking for a five year deal, but he is going to want to have it be worth his time to not retire. This guy loves the game, and will leave it when nobody wants him, not one second before. What he still brings to the table is a big body, and solid route running with HOF hands. He can fill a sizable chunk of the wide receiver role that Calvin was filling last year; running underneath routes and getting murdered by a linebacker is Boldin’s specialty. He’s a guy that will do 100% of the things he needs to do to help the team win games and watching a guy do that can’t help but force the rest of the position group to bring their game up.
#2 Mohamed Sanu, Cincinatti Bengals
He’s likely only going to move on from the Bengals for the promise of a bigger role, and thus a bigger pay-check. He’s got some great hands, in a way that makes the position of wide receiver look easy to play, more than a circus catch leaping over three defenders kind of way. He’s economical in his movements, adjusts to the ball well (a mandatory trait when your QB is #9 in Detroit), and he’s the prototype possession receiver, but he’s not slow; he can be a legitimate number two receiver for a long time. It’s only the leadership of Boldin that kept him from topping this list for me. If Megatron is back, this is my number one target in free agency at the Wide receiver position. He also brings some gadget play potential, with two touchdown passes, and two rushing touchdowns in his career
#3 Rishard Matthews, Miami Dolphins
If he were 6’4 he would be number one on this list. He doesn’t have the stereotypical size that you’re looking for in a possession receiver at 6′ even, but he’s not Steve Smith either. He is big enough, and kept receivers with much more impressive pedigrees off the field in Miami this season because he did exactly what was asked of him and caught the ball when it was thrown to him. I think the lions should probably still rank wide receiver as a fairly high draft priority after signing Matthews, and I wouldn’t want them to give him a big and/or long-term deal, but Matthews could surprise some people next year if he gets to a place that hasn’t done everything they can to keep him off the field.
#4 Ruben Randle, New York Giants
He is a physical wide receiver who battles at the line of scrimmage, and at the point of the catch. He is one of those guys where it has always seemed like his coaches didn’t see how useful he was (like Wes Welker in Miami before he got to the Patriots and Tom Brady) it always took an injury or someone getting cut for Randle to get on the field. All he’s done is be their number two receiver every year for five years, showing solid hands, decent route running, and a willingness to play through a nagging injury while maintaining production.
#5 the Phoenix, Brian Quick, Los Angeles Rams
Quick was looking really good in the middle of the 2014 season when he went down with a shoulder injury that threatened his career and by all accounts didn’t really recover fully for the 2015 season. This is a serious risk/reward play. It’s the kind of thing that good teams do, but if the entire answer to replacing Calvin Johnson was to sign Brian Quick; to say that I would not be a fan of the solution would be a pretty huge understatement because there is a possibility that he won’t make a team. He’s more of a third option kind of signing – if a big money receiver were brought in, and Quick were the replacement for Lance Moore, the Lions would be in pretty good shape.
So there you have the lists of wide receivers that I think need to have their tires kicked by the Lions this off-season. There are other options out there; given the multiple needs at the position that the Lions do have, I personally would prefer the approach of a shotgun to that of a sniper rifle. I don’t think one big name gets the team where they need to be long term if Megatron retires; I believe that signing multiple second or third tier players, thus increasing the number of dangerous targets will make the offense less predictable, more adaptable, and in key situations more successful.
As always, if you want to hear even more of my opinions, for some reason, on the Lions, the draft, football in general, and a healthy sprinkling of hockey commentary, I can be found on Reddit as /u/a5hcrack and twitter @a5hcrack navigating this complex series of tubes. Next up is another of the biggest holes in the Lions roster: defensive tackle.
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