The Detroit Lions had productive seasons from their top three wide receivers in 2016. The trio of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Anquan Boldin were one of the better position groups in the NFL. They combined for 212 catches and 2591 yards. Tate and Jones will be back for 2017, but Boldin’s future is up in the air. He is contemplating retirement at 35 years of age. The Lions will need to find someone to replace that production. Andre Roberts was the fourth wide receiver, but his contribution was as a returner. He is also a free agent, but returners will be a separate article series as there are many different positions that can provide them. There are some very popular misconceptions about the Lions’ passing game, and I will try to clear them up.
What don’t the Lions Need at Wide Receiver?
You’ll hear a lot about deep threats, and I disagree. The Lions have two starting wide receivers with 4.4 speed. I think the people who tell you the Lions need this are just refusing to leave the shadow of Calvin Johnson. Every team in the NFL would be happy to add a Calvin Johnson. The people who advocate this saw a lot of one-on-one battles thirty yards downfield where Calvin Johnson turned a terrible throw into a big play. The Lions’ coaching staff have removed the “awful throw downfield” from the game plan. They do not need to bring it back, as it was one of the most limiting options in the development of Matthew Stafford. Calvin Johnson was wasted in this offense, utilized primarily in the same way Anquan Boldin was, with the occasional deep ball bringing his yards per catch up.
This is not a vertical passing offense. This is an offense designed to get the ball out of Matthew Stafford’s hands as rapidly as possible on short throws. The perception is that the Lions didn’t go deep enough, but they were in the tenth in 40+ yard passing plays in 2016. They did not do it often, but when they did it was effective. That means their receiving personnel are capable of executing deep passing plays. Adding a player like Cordarrelle Patterson, or Desean Jackson just gives the Lions more of what they already have.
What Do the Lions Need at Wide Receiver?
The Lions do not have a possession type wide receiver under contract, and that is a huge part of their offense. Boldin was their primary third down and red zone target. He took that part of Calvin Johnson’s role, while Marvin Jones took the deep balls. The Lions need a player that can take advantage of the openings underneath that are created by their speedy outside receivers. Luckily for the somewhat cap-strapped Lions, possession receivers are cheap and plentiful. $36 million sounds like a lot of salary cap space, but it places the Lions right in the middle of the pack. The Lions also do not have a lot of options for creating cap space through cuts. I covered their cap situation in more detail here.
How Wide Receiver Fits: Big Picture
The Lions need to fix their running game and pass protection in order to free their existing weapons up for deep throws. Play action that actually threatens safeties, better down and distance combos, and more effective pass protection, are where they need to focus their efforts. The skill set of their receivers is not the issue with the downfield passing game, though a player less athletically limited than Boldin would not be a bad option. Completely one-dimensional players are never perfect fits and Boldin is certainly that.
Who Fits Into That Picture?
There are a lot of players entering free agency that the Lions could go after to fill this role. I have profiled a few over the last week. Brandon Lafell, Robert Woods, and Kendall Wright, or Kenny Britt all could fill in for Boldin to various degrees. Each has ways in which they would be a better fit than the others. No move occurs in a vacuum and I would like to see the Lions address the tight end position in a way that can fill a lot of Boldin’s role this season if they let him walk.