In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, Calvin Johnson has told close teammates and coach Jim Caldwell that 2015 was to be his last season and planned to retire. While that was a grenade that still has Detroit Lions fans blinded and gasping for air, those who have been closely watching the past couple of seasons and are familiar with Johnson’s contract would know that it is and has been time to begin backfilling the wide receiver position with talent.
The position was productive at the top of the depth chart in 2015 with Calvin Johnson being a top 10 and Golden Tate being a top 30 receiver according to ProFootballFocus. The Lions as a team were top 5 in receptions and top 10 in yards receiving per game, but much of that can be accredited to Theo Riddick’s development as a pass catching RB and the complete lack of a run game. The pass game was hardly explosive, with the Lions being bottom 15 in receptions of 20+ yards and bottom 20 in receptions of 40+ yards.
Some of the lack of explosiveness can be attributed to the early season woes under Joe Lombardi. The Lions were much less allergic to throwing the ball downfield after the offense began to blossom under Jim Bob Cooter. However, it was plain to my eyes that Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ main (and only) downfield pass catching threat was losing effectiveness in what have been his major winning traits throughout his career. He has lost some speed, mangled his hands, and looked belabored in his acrobatic high pointing ability that at one point had him alone at the top of the game’s best receivers. He still showed some of that ability in 2015, but it paled in comparison to what he’d done in the previous several years.
Enter the lack of depth here. The Corey Fuller experiment has flashed at times such as the 2014 game-winner at Wembley stadium, but ultimately provides a receiver who struggles to get separation in spite of his upper class speed due to his inexperience in route running and release. He also has been ineffective with his run blocking, leading him to be one of the game’s worst receivers not to mention a complete liability on special teams.
Lance Moore, while he had a couple of big games this year, was ultimately an expected disappointment as his age showed us why he’s been declining in production for the past few years. Moore and Fuller graded similarly per ProFootballFocus at around 55 / 100. I’m no academic but I do know that those sorts of grades in school would have left me without a job today.
That brings us to the most promising of this group, TJ Jones. Under Cooter, Jones really began to flash some ability towards the end of the year, primarily in the slot. Between he and Riddick splitting time at WR, the Lions should be at least adequate in the slot position in 2016. If the opportunity to upgrade here presents itself, the Lions should take that opportunity but adding depth to the outside WR positions should take priority this offseason.
So, what should the Lions be looking for in upgrading the depth at wide receiver? It is not realistic that the Lions will get another super-athlete that garners comparisons to an unstoppable robotic force to replace what Calvin recently was. But that does not mean that the Lions shouldn’t look to replicate some of the features he brought that allowed the offense to fly.
Calvin has brought to the team a number of “wow” moments throughout the years, and among perhaps the most evident are the deep balls and touchdown catches. I’m going to present the argument that, while the Lions do not necessarily want to decrease receiving touchdowns, they should want to prioritize someone who can catch a lot of deep passes over that.
In analyzing the charts above, we find a few interesting things. For example, no team won over 7 games by scoring 55% or more of their points via receiving touchdowns. All teams that won over 10 games scored 46% or less of their points via receiving touchdowns. One team with 11 wins scored just 23% of their points via the pass. I’m going to take from the data that receiving touchdowns may not be a huge priority. Calvin has proven quite reliable in this department, and Eric Ebron began to get a few targets towards the end of the year and I’d look for that to continue as he establishes himself as the big bodied threat.
On the opposite dataset, yards per catch looks like it has a reasonably strong correlation as yards per catch increases from the losingest to the winningest teams. No team with 11 wins or more averaged less than 11.5 yards per catch. There were no winning teams at all with less than 11 yards per catch. Perhaps this represents the decline of offenses focused entirely around the short pass. Lions fans know from Lombardi the Terrible’s reign that teams are figuring that out pretty quickly.
Whether or not Calvin comes back, it is clear that his skill set is not what it once was and that the Lions must plan for depth behind him now. None of the players behind Calvin are big deep ball threats, even Golden Tate. Corey Fuller has some potential there but he has had his fair share of chances, and it’s likely time for the Lions to look elsewhere.
Whether or not Calvin Johnson decides to retire, the Lions should have somewhere in the neck of $20-30 million in cap space, which is potentially enough to add a good role player at receiver. If Calvin (13.9 YPC) does retire, that will open up at least $11 million more, which would be enough to add a couple of good pieces in the receiving game in theory.
Unfortunately, this free agent class is not exactly a sight for sore eyes, and if new GM Bob Quinn’s tenure with the Patriots is any indication, they will not be big spenders at this position. Some of the top names outside of probably-too-expensive Alshon Jeffery (25 years old, 14.9 YPC), Reuben Randle (24 years old, 14.0 YPC), Kamar Aiken (restricted – 26 years old, 12.6 YPC), and Travis Benjamin (26 years old, 14.2 YPC). In my opinion, any of these guys would be solid additions for a mid-range price, though Kamar Aiken would potentially cost the Lions a pick.
Running down the next tier of receivers, we find Marvin Jones (25 years old, 12.6 YPC), Mohamed Sanu (26 years old, 11.9 YPC) and Jermaine Kearse (25 years old, 14 YPC). I think this area is one which the Lions might actually pursue – someone who is still youthful and looking to take the next step to becoming a much more household name.
So, that’s all good and well, but if the Lions strike out in free agency, they will need to look to the draft for at least one wide receiver if not more. If they do strike out in free agency, then it is also more likely the Lions draft a receiver earlier than they otherwise would and rightfully so. New GM Bob Quinn has so far preached versatility as a highly valued characteristic, and this draft has a few of that type of player. With the defensive talent at the top this year, I find it hard to believe the Lions will draft a receiver in the first round. However, rounds 2-4 could be a sweet spot.
The most highly touted receiver after the Senior Bowl would be Braxton Miller, who the Lions could potentially target in the early 2nd round. Miller would bring versatility in droves as well as playmaking ability that the Lions have lacked outside of Golden Tate the past few years. Personally, I have Miller’s ceiling as Antonio Brown, but he definitely has some work to do to get there but does appear to have the willpower to accomplish it.
Next, we have Josh Doctson, who can consistently win jump balls, which Matthew Stafford has shown he can and will throw. Doctson somewhat lacks the bulky, weighty build that Calvin has, but he has room to fill out his frame and is springy with great hands. Doctson could be available with the Lions’ 2nd round pick. Not only is he a deep threat but provides the red zone threat as well with his high pointing ability.
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An option in the 2nd / 3rd round could be Leonte Carroo. While lacking top-end speed, Carroo possesses top-tier route running and acrobatic catch ability that could help open up the pass game over the top. Carroo was suspended earlier in the year for a potential assault but the charges were later dropped, so it will be interesting to see if and how Bob Quinn’s zero tolerance policy comes into effect there. After footage was released it appeared that Carroo was innocent. Carroo has some of the best hands in the draft, so if he was truly innocent it would be a shame for the Lions not to consider him.
Some prospects that could be had in rounds 4-6 are small-schooler Paul McRoberts, who displays flashes of Allen Robinson on tape, Charone Peake, who displayed explosion and polish during Senior Bowl week, and Geronimo Allison, with whom our own Jeff Risdon was highly impressed during the week of the Shrine Game.
All in all, it makes sense to me to add one mid-tier free agent and one draft pick whether it is on Day 2 or Day 3. My ideal WR setup for 2016 would be something like Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Paul McRoberts, and TJ Jones with Theo Riddick occupying extra time in the slot as well as Corey Fuller or a potential additional draft pick like Charone Peake entering the picture if Calvin does retire, which is to me still to be determined until we hear it from the man himself.