Billingsley making case in Lions' WR competition

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh -- The Detroit Lions have a wealth of talent at wide receiver and the competition for roster spots is dense. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin are the locks. Behind that trio, veterans Andre Roberts, Andre Caldwell, Jeremy Kerley and TJ Jones are slugging it out with big-bodied rookies Jay Lee and Quinshad Davis.

Then, there's Jace Billingsley, whose diminutive frame pales in comparison to his odds of making the Lions' roster. But when the 5-foot-9 undrafted rookie out of NAIA Eastern Oregon got an opportunity to showcase his talents in the Lions' 30-17 preseason win in Pittsburgh, he proved he won't go down without a fight.

Jace Billingsley celebrates with Jake Rudock  after scoring on a 27-yard pass in the fourth quarter Friday.

With the Lions looking to extend a seven-point advantage in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, Billingsley lined up in the left slot on a third-and-9 play from the Pittsburgh 27-yard line. The cornerback in coverage blitzed on the snap, leaving Billingsley wide open for a short throw from quarterback Jake Rudock. Defenders quickly swarmed and it appeared the receiver would be dropped short of the first-down marker, setting the Lions up for a 36- or 37-yard field goal attempt.

But the defenders underestimated Billingsley's open-field elusiveness. He planted hard and cut to his left, slicing between two would-be tacklers at the 19-yard line, turned up field, juked past the safety at the eight and dove through a final tackle attempt at the three for the game-sealing touchdown.

"Just being out there all day today was pretty special," Billingsley said after the game. "I come from a small school, so it was pretty surreal. I'm just trying to have fun and make plays out there with my opportunities."

Billingsley admitted he had always dreamed of the moment, scoring an NFL touchdown, but also acknowledged it was probably unrealistic.

Hailing for Winnemucca, Nev, a town of fewer than 10,000 people, Billingsley was a superstar high school athlete. He won four state wrestling titles, racked up over 5,000 yards as a running back and also starred in baseball. He went on to Eastern Oregon where he split time at running back and wide receiver, finishing his college career as the school's record-holder for receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns.

Given Billingsley's size, background and Lions general manager Bob Quinn coming from New England, it's easy to draw comparisons to Danny Woodhead, the current Chargers running back who spent three seasons with the Patriots. Also measuring well short of six-foot, he defied logical convention,carving out a solid career as one of the NFL's better receiving backs.

Billingsley's battle for a roster spot in Detroit is the steepest of uphill climbs. He'd have to pass up a number of quality options in front of him on the depth chart, and it's not like that group is faltering. Roberts had three grabs for 57 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. Kerley overcame an ugly drop early in the contest to lead the team with five receptions.

Where Billingsley might be able to make up ground is as a punt returner. He brought back three in the preseason opener, averaging a healthy 13.7 yards.

"I have to do my thing on special teams, try to stand out on special teams because that's going to be big," he said. "I can just have fun, do my best and see what happens."