Detroit Lions 2020 Preview – Wide Receiver & Tight End

Embed from Getty Images

Detroit Lions Wide Receiver Kenny Golladay couldn’t gain separation and Tight end T.J. Hockenson ended up on IR – both should improve this season.


The Detroit Lions playing wide receiver and tight end are mostly the same players the team had last season. Returning players Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, at wide receiver and TJ Hockenson and Jesse James at tight end will be playing much the same roles in 2020. However, with another year in Darrell Bevell’s system, and another chance to stay healthy for 16 games this season, the wide receiver and tight end rooms could look very different than what we saw at the end of last season – the Detroit Lions are counting on it.

Injuries Hurt Detroit Lions Wide Receiver Corps In 2019

The Detroit Lions got bit hard by the injury bug last year in the wide receiver and tight end rooms. Kenny Golladay was the only member of the groups to be eligible to play in all 16 games last season. TJ Hockenson was a rookie, and while he was a significant factor vs the Arizona Cardinals defense, his not finishing out the season (and winding up on Injured Reserve) cost the Lions dearly.

The Lions also faced some natural regression last year at wide receiver due to the loss of QB Matthew Stafford and his massive arm strength which gives him the ability to throw his wide receiver or tight end open. Our backups, who played out the second half of the season, did not have the ability to throw receivers open like Stafford can. Ultimately, these struggles with injuries were a major contributor for the Detroit Lions inability to meet expectations across the wide receiver and tight end corps last year. However, in 2020, the team is banking on the group rebounding and improving with wide receivers coach Robert Prince leading the way once again. He has been critical for the development of many of the team’s receivers in his tenure with the team.

Golladay And Jones Struggled To Separate

One of the biggest issues the Lions wide receiver corp had was their lack of separation from opposing corners. Kenny Golladay (last) and Marvin Jones (3rd worst) were two of the three worst receivers in creating space last year among all pass catchers, per Next Gen Stats. This was despite Golladay getting 5.3 yards of cushion per route run, while Marvin Jones got an average of 6.5 Yards of cushion on every route run for the Detroit Lions last year.

This inability to separate put Lions backup quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and David Blough into tough positions last year and forced them to make very difficult throws – throws that a backup quarterback should not be expected to make. While Stafford showcased his incredible talent by maximizing those small windows as much as possible, the backups could not execute at nearly the same level.

Additionally, Kenny Golladay only had a catch rate last year of 56.03% (also per Next Gen) which puts him just outside the bottom 20 among all pass catchers (including tight ends) last season. Player Profiler also supports this, and has his true catch rate (catch rate on all passes deemed catchable) at 75.6%, which was 85th among receivers.

Football Outsiders Still Like Golladay And Jones

While Next Gen and Player Profiler don’t provide a very optimistic outlook on either Golladay or Jones, Football Outsiders still likes what they brought to the table last year in terms of efficiency. Golladay finished 13th among true receivers in DVOA, while Marvin Jones also cracked the top 20 at wide receiver (at 20th) to make the Detroit Lions one of three teams to have at least two receivers in the Top 20 last year. The other two teams were the Minnesota Vikings with Stefon Diggs (who’s now a member of the Buffalo Bills) and Adam Thielen, as well as the Tampa Bay Bucs with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.

Golladay in particular was incredibly efficient when he was able to come down with the ball, so this makes sense. He was one of the league’s best receivers on passes of 20+ yards last season, and was just outside the top five in Air Yards Targeted per Next Gen at an average target of 15.4 yards down the field. Golladay is able to do one thing extremely well, and that’s utilize his size to tip the scale of 50/50 balls in favor of the Lions, Golladay and Stafford have developed a fine connection over the last two seasons together.

TJ Hockenson Shows Potential For Growth At Tight End

Embed from Getty Images

While TJ Hockenson may have struggled his rookie year compared to some lofty expectations that were set for this young tight end, he showed he has the potential that excited scouts while he was playing at Iowa. His start to the season vs the Arizona Cardinals will surely be one to remember, but he also made some other notable catches in the early part of the season when he had to as well.

Hockenson does still have some areas to improve on, however. His catch rate as a tight end last season was quite low, almost bottom ten among all pass catchers per Next Gen. However part of this can be attributed to the adjustment of catching passes from Matthew Stafford instead of Nate Stanley, the quarterback at Iowa. This should improve naturally as Hockenson develops a relationship with Stafford in the coming season and beyond.

Another thing that held Hockenson back last year was the lack of a true third down pass catching back. With the addition of D’Andre Swift, the Detroit Lions now have a lot more freedom with passing game concepts they can utilize with the pair, giving Hockenson a little bit less focus in the seam from defenses, who now have to respect the Lions’ running backs as well.

Meanwhile, Hockenson also had some minor struggles with his blocking as a rookie last season as well, which hopefully can be improved with a full season under his belt. Continuing work with Detroit Lions strength and conditioning coaches as well as developing his blocking long-term from the tight end position will be needed.

Most rookies at the tight end position struggle coming out of the gate, with rare exceptions. Hockenson was right in line with some tight ends who ended up becoming key factors in their team’s offense. This was still, despite his injuries last season as well as being faced with Stafford’s injury. There are reasons to believe in Hockenson both in 2020 and moving forward, and his growth should only continue to escalate with new tight ends coach Ben Johnson getting a promotion from quality control.

Jesse James And Danny Amendola Return

One of the team’s biggest disappointments last season at tight end was the addition of free agent tight end Jesse James. Meanwhile, one of the biggest pleasant surprises was the other free agent pass catcher in Danny Amendola. Both signed with the Detroit Lions last off-season. Amendola has brought a work ethic and continued to help grow the culture instilled under Ron Prince while in Detroit.

Meanwhile, Jesse James figured to be a significant upgrade from the previous year’s tight end room, and he largely took a back stage to the rising star in T.J. Hockenson. He struggled in his first season with the team was under difficult circumstances, but he showed in his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers what his ceiling at tight end could be.

Overall, they too will need to step up this season, in addition to Golladay, Hockenson and Jones, for this to be a successful season for the Detroit Lions pass catchers.

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to follow @C_Robbins_ on Twitter, and leave me your thoughts on the Detroit Lions Subreddit! Check out some of Chris’s other articles for the Detroit Lions Podcast here.

Like this? Please click here and support our site via Patreon!

More From The Detroit Lions Podcast