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 one is a bit more complicated than most, so I’m cutting it i to two separate pieces. Join me as I break down the fourth position I’ll be looking at…
WIDE RECEIVER (Part One)
The Lions’ wide receiver position is a top heavy affair. If Calvin Johnson comes back the Lions have two Pro Bowl caliber wide receivers: the all everything Johnson, and the yards after the catch machine that is Golden Tate. TJ Jones is under contract for 2016 and did a good job in the return game when called upon, but at this point he still can’t be relied upon as a receiver after being set back by severe nerve damage in 2014. Corey Fuller is an exclusive rights free agent which means he’ll be back at least as a camp body, but at this point it’s extremely difficult to see Fuller stepping in to a role in the offense, possibly even making the team is a stretch. He’s shown that there is no special talent in him at the NFL level.
The Tortoise and the Hare is a children’s story aimed at teaching the little ones not to rush all the time and not to underestimate their enemies. It teaches that careful and steady progress is also as important as speed in many tasks. It also happens to be a reasonable depiction of the two roles that Calvin Johnson has been single-handedly performing for the Lions for years. He has been the ultimate deep threat, the master of high pointing jump balls with his immense body and athletic ability; these are the plays we will miss most as fans and are the single most important aspect of his game that needs to be replaced immediately in the offense if he doesn’t return. A receiver that takes the top off a defense is critical to opening up the bubble screens and slants for Golden Tate – everything that Theo Riddick does for the team – and takes the pressure off Matthew Stafford to be pinpoint accurate with every throw. If there is no route going downfield that the defense needs to be worried about, then there will not consistently be an open wide receiver to check down to. This is what guys like Reggie Bush referred to when they signed here because of the coverages that the Lions saw with Megatron in the line-up; this was the aspect of Megatron’s game that the lions benefited from on every single play that he was on the field. If Calvin Johnson returns, the key to more deep balls will be improved blocking, but if he does not then the only receiving threat on the team with any ability to stretch the field is Tate. The wide receiver position is one that could need multiple upgrades going in to 2016.
#1 Marvin Jones, Cincinatti Bengals
Circus catches on deep balls? Check. Blazing speed? Check. Looking for the opportunity to get out of the shadow of A.J Green? Likely. This guy is probably the most talented wide receiver option in free agency other than just throwing money at Alshon Jeffrey, who isn’t going to be available, and I wouldn’t want to see on the Lions payroll if he was. Jones has the biggest breakout potential of the free agent crop and could easily outplay the contract he is going to get. He plays a completely different game from Golden Tate, and the two would complement each other perfectly.
#2 Mike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings
If Minnesota hadn’t had two separate receivers become the surprise breakout guy of the year in two straight seasons Wallace would still be there. I think he’s done getting $10 million per year deals, and if that’s the case he could be a really useful piece in the quest to replace one half of the Megatron yin/yang. If someone wants to throw a mega deal at a guy that has conclusively proven he isn’t a number one receiver they can make that mistake and we can move down the list, but $5 million a year? He can still take the top off a defense, and if he were the number two or three option with a guy like Stafford ripping the ball down the field…it could be the perfect combination for both players.
#3 Travis Benjamin, Cleveland Browns
I think he is going to get paid more than he should. Not that I think he’s a bad player, or that he wouldn’t fit the role very well for the Lions, but the hype on this guy is exactly the sort of thing that gets a guy a deal he doesn’t deserve from a team that can’t get anyone else to come. It’s exactly the sort of scenario that I can see the Lions falling into in the wake of an all world talent deciding he doesn’t want to play any more, and it’s a scenario that they need to avoid. Talent wise he belongs higher up this list, as he played very well last year for a team with no other wide receivers, with a previously unheralded tight end as their best other receiving option and hot garbage at the quarterback position. I just don’t trust him to repeat it. He was the little fish in a tiny pond. I don’t think he should get more than Tate, and I suspect he will somewhere. Torrey Smith leaving Baltimore is the parable I think best applies to Benjamin, and I don’t want to see that happen to the Lions.
#4 Andre Holmes, Oakland Raiders
Replaced by a top tier draft pick and the most surprising free agent performance in the NFL last year in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree respectively, Holmes is likely to be looking for one of those one year “show me” deals, or if the Lions felt like gambling, could probably be locked up for a few years at a fairly low number. Holmes has the frame you want, and was the best wide receiver on the Raiders team in 2014 without question. He was an undrafted free agent signing of the Patriots’ in his draft year, making a connection between Holmes and Bob Quinn easy to draw. He is not a burner so to speak, but he’s got enough speed to take advantage of his height down-field.
#5 Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
With the emergence of Hurns and Robinson as a solid one-two punch while Lee has dealt with some early injuries to his legs, there is a possibility that a pick could be used to pry the former second-rounder out of Jacksonville’s hands. I’m not advocating trading our second-rounder for him, but depending on what Jacksonville wanted back, I think it would be something the Lions should look into. It’s pure speculation on my part that Lee might be available, but their head coach remarked something to the effect that Lee was great but it would sure be nice to have him on the field. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of a head coach giving up on a player, and Lee is a talented young man that might have immense upside.
So there you have the Hares, the guys that will open up shorter passes, or take advantage of play action in the even that the Lions can get the running game going. follow the link to part two, or pause here and head over to Reddit or twitter (@a5hcrack) to tell me what a jerk I am for even contemplating the retirement of the greatest physical specimen to ever lace up cleats. Once you’ve done that, you should click the following link and check out part two.