Golden Tate, who signed Wednesday with the Lions, was the leading receiver on the Super Bowl champion Seahawks (64 catches, 898 yards). (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
As the old NFL adage goes, if at first you don’t succeed, sign, sign again. In this case, the Lions had no choice and made a good choice, and I know you’ve heard that before.
Their seemingly endless pursuit of wide-receiver help struck Golden, which is slightly different than gold. They landed free-agent Golden Tate for a reasonable $31 million over five years, and before we rehash how badly they still need defense and how careful they must be with their salary cap, let’s acknowledge the importance of this.
Tate was one of the top two or three free-agent receivers, behind Eric Decker and maybe Hakeem Nicks. He’s young (25), has great hands, can play multiple spots, and oh by the way, was the leading receiver on the Super Bowl champion Seahawks (64 catches, 898 yards).
The Lions have been prudently passive, or passively prudent, in this free-agent market. Fans get frustrated when a team declares itself in win-now mode and then doesn’t land anyone in the first 24 hours, especially when it desperately needs a safety and other defensive players.
But this is a franchise that’s gotten into trouble throwing too much money at too few, and some of the contracts around the league have been exorbitant. Would it help if Ndamukong Suh had reworked his deal to free up cap space? Sure, and his delay in hiring an agent was troubling. But perusing the signings, I don’t think the Lions missed out on a certain difference-maker, at least not yet.
By signing Tate on Wednesday, they did two vital things. No. 1, they opened up their No. 10 overall pick to be used on a defensive player. And No. 2, they took another, possibly wiser stab at protecting their top asset. Calvin Johnson has been wildly productive for years, but the Lions have wasted chances to balance the field. Their gaudy yardage totals (sixth in the league) last season didn’t match their point total (13th), contributing to the 7-9 record.
This isn’t just about supporting Matthew Stafford, who still has to prove he can make more than one receiver better. To be fair, Stafford’s options beyond Johnson have swung from injured to invisible to insubordinate. Before Tate signed, the Lions’ other receivers were Kevin Ogletree, Kris Durham and Jeremy Ross.
Tate could be a more valuable addition than Reggie Bush a year ago, with his speed and his youth. The former second-round pick out of Notre Dame got better every year in Seattle and had the lowest dropped-pass rate in the NFL.
“I feel like I’m going to get a lot of balls, the other receivers are going to get a lot of balls, Calvin’s going to get a lot of balls,” Tate said. “That’s exciting, especially coming from a run-heavy offense where all the notoriety went to the defense.”
Tate said he was especially impressed by his conversation with vice-chairman Bill Ford Jr. Detroit was the only place he visited, and not just because the weather made it difficult to go anywhere else. Like most players, Tate appreciates how Johnson impacts others.
“I see this offense opening up a lot, and I want to play a huge role in it,” Tate said. “I feel like there’s so many things you can do with a player like myself and Calvin that it’s going to be hard to stop us, to be honest.”
Stopping others becomes the primary focus now, and I wouldn’t mind if the Lions grabbed defenders with the entire top half of their draft. Even though emphasis on offense hasn’t worked here, it’s unavoidable in the pass-happy NFL. That’s why the hunt for a threat alongside Johnson has been so desperate and so haunting, and led to so many mistakes.
I could remind you how many times Matt Millen reached for a receiver in the draft, but that’d be cruel. Besides, the position has been equally cursed under Mayhew. The Lions took Titus Young in the second round, and emotional issues knocked him out of the league. They took Ryan Broyles in the second round, and consecutive season-ending injuries wrecked the early returns. To complete the decimation last season, dependable receiver Nate Burleson had his unfortunate encounter with a sliding pizza during a car accident.
The Lions’ offense also essentially lost two high-pick runners — Jahvid Best (concussion) and Mikel Leshoure (buried on the bench). You can’t simply plug in guys and hope Stafford and Johnson light it up. That worked in the 2011 playoff season, when defenses didn’t know how to handle the combo.
The Lions must fix several more things before they can legitimately claim improvement. But adding a top receiver was a must, and it’s not even debatable. Tate came to town Tuesday night just in time for the latest big snowstorm, and the rule is, never let a prospect out of the showroom, or snow room. The Lions need more, but this was one piece they absolutely had to get.