Niyo: For Lions' Kenny Golladay, hard work best route to getting better

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — It’s difficult to stand out when you’re just trying to fit in.

But Kenny Golladay knows where he’s supposed to be now. And that’s the new challenge for the Lions’ second-year receiver: He knows he’s not a rookie anymore, and the surprise won’t be that he produces this season. It’ll be if he doesn’t.

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay had 28 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie.

So that’s what he’s reminding himself every day this spring, including this week as he takes the field during the Lions’ mandatory minicamp. It’s also what he’s telling himself every night, away from the team facility, where rookies — and Golladay was no different than most — often have the hardest time in the NFL.

Sure, the third-round pick out of Northern Illinois found success in his first go-round as a pro last season in Detroit.

“But I can’t be satisfied or become complacent with that, you know?” Golladay said after Tuesday’s two-hour minicamp practice in Allen Park. “I know that I want to be a big part of this team. And I know if I want to make that happen, I gotta come out here each and every day learning something new, trying to get better.

“It’s going out there, and when your number’s called, make a play. That’s really how you do it. Then when the pads come on (in training camp), continue to do the same thing.”

But this isn’t the same thing, and Golladay, to his credit, seems to understand that, taking to heart some of the constructive criticism he received after a typically up-and-down rookie season in 2017. One that saw him make an immediate splash in September, then struggle with an injury through October and into November before finishing with a flourish.

Up and down

Golladay caught 28 passes for 477 yards as a rookie, and he would’ve ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per reception (17.0) had he met the 30-catch threshold for league leaders. But of Golladay’s three touchdowns, two came in a fourth-quarter rally in the season opener against Arizona. And his five-game injury absence certainly was felt as the Lions’ fast start last fall fell apart. The nagging hamstring injury that kept him sidelined longer than expected was part of what general manager Bob Quinn was talking about earlier this offseason, noting Golladay’s “tremendous upside” and “great potential” but adding, “I think he needs to really have a great offseason this year to get his body to where it needs to be.”

That’s why the 6-foot-4, 215 pound Golladay spent time working out in Florida again this offseason at the gym owned by six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. It’s why he and some of his teammates may get together for some informal workouts next month before the start of training camp as well. But mostly, it’s why he’s taking stock of everything he does, not just the routes he runs.

“That all comes with becoming a better pro,” Golladay said. “Learning what to do and what not to do, learning what helps your body and what doesn’t. Just the little stuff. Proper hydration. Sleep. Knowing there’s a bigger goal.”

He won’t put any numbers on that goal, at least not publicly. But again, while the potential is hard to ignore — Golladay hauled in a catch of 30-plus yards in six of the 11 games he played last season — it’s the inner drive the Lions are counting on now.

He was an unranked recruit coming out of a Chicago-area high school in 2012. He had no major-college scholarship offers, and only one at the FCS level — from North Dakota. After a breakout sophomore year there, he put together his own highlight tape, had his high school coach send it out, and eventually landed at Northern Illinois, where he dominated the Mid-American Conference for two seasons before getting drafted in Detroit.

Yet even for an athletic receiver like Golladay, that next leap was a big one.

“Coming from college, definitely the learning curve is always extreme when they first get in,” said Robert Prince, the Lions’ receivers coach who is one of a handful of holdovers on Matt Patricia’s staff from last season. “And for him, especially, he felt more comfortable near the end of the season than he did the beginning — a lot less thinking and more able to just react to plays.”

Making the leap

Some of his veteran teammates see the same this spring, both on the field and in film sessions, as Golladay makes what Patricia called a “huge transition” Wednesday, noting “the second year is really where you get some time to learn, dive into the details of some of the things you’re doing … and really to master the concepts that he’s been asked to learn.” So far, so good.

“I think overall his knowledge, his football IQ is a lot higher,” said Golden Tate, a ninth-year pro coming off his fourth consecutive 90-catch season in Detroit. “And as we saw later in the season, he got better and better. Obviously he was battling a few things last season. But we’re expecting big things from Kenny. …

“What has impressed me about Kenny is he’s not looking at the past. He’s showing up every day wanting to get better.”

With Tate entering a contract year and Marvin Jones fresh off the best season of his career — 61 receptions, 1,101 yards, nine touchdowns — and signed through 2020, Golladay won’t be asked to fill the No. 1 role anytime soon. But X and Y look better when there’s a Z behind them. And that’s the role Golladay is ideally suited for right now: as a red-zone target and a downfield receiving threat that can open up room in the middle of the field — not just for Tate working underneath routes, but also for the Lions’ running backs and tight ends.

He fits in, no doubt. Now it’s time to stand out.

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