Wide receivers Sammy Watkins, left; from Clemson; Mike Evans, middle, from Texas A&M; and Marqise Lee, right; from USC, are all projected first-round picks. (Getty Images)
Indianapolis — As the top wide receiver prospects filed in for news conferences Friday and Saturday at the NFL combine, something became crystal clear.
The Lions will leave no stone unturned as they search for a complement to star wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, USC’s Marqise Lee, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. are all potential first-round picks who said they either had an interview or had one scheduled with the Lions during the combine.
Other possible first-round receivers like Fresno State’s Davante Adams and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin either weren’t asked or declined comment on any interview with the Lions, but it’s a safe bet they did as the Lions cast a wide net for more offensive playmakers.
“One way to look at it is we have a big receiver in Calvin, so let’s get a smaller guy who can run routes and get open and slide into the slot on third downs,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said Friday. “Another way to look at is what Chicago did with two big guys (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery), so it really can go either way. It's kind of who you can get.”
Johnson is the undisputed best receiver in the NFL right now, but the Lions are desperate for more weapons for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Watkins is widely considered the top receiver in the draft, and at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, he fits Mayhew’s description of a smaller, speedy receiver who can find holes all over the field. But Watkins probably won’t be available when the Lions pick at No. 10 in May, especially after he displays his physical tools Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I want to run something crazy, maybe break the combine record,” Watkins said of his upcoming 40-yard dash. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson’s time of 4.24 seconds has stood since 2008.
With Nate Burleson released and Ryan Broyles returning from his third major leg injury in as many years, the Lions need a slot receiver. They also need an outside receiver who can stretch the field. Kris Durham, the No. 2 receiver last season, had just 38 catches for 490 yards last season, though Mayhew said he’ll likely return to Detroit in 2014.
If the Lions desire a bigger receiver, Evans (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) or Benjamin (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) could be their first-round target.
Lee (6-foot, 192 pounds), Cooks (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) and Beckham (5-foot-11, 198 pounds) are smaller receivers, and although they may be pushed into the slot in the NFL, all three played more outside than inside in college.
“Whatever it is they want to put me at, I’m going to succeed,” Cooks said confidently Friday.
Lee liked the idea of taking pressure off Johnson in Detroit.
“Calvin Johnson is an amazing receiver, as everyone knows,” he said. “(I would) actually come in and actually do something when I first get in there, and take everybody's eyes off of him, so he can get what he's got to get.”
The Lions lack depth at receiver so much that they could grab two receivers in the draft. In addition to the top prospects, the Lions interviewed likely mid- to late-round picks Jeff Janis from Saginaw Valley State, Paul Richardson from Colorado and Austin Franklin from New Mexico State, who said he’d like to play with Johnson so the Lions would have two “unstoppable” receivers.
“We'll evaluate these guys appropriately and make decisions about guys that can help us win,” Mayhew said. “I don't have any height, weight, speed things to give you on receivers. They come in different packages.”