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Billingsley catches Lions’ eye, could land bigger role

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — What the Detroit Lions intend to do about a third receiver remains unclear heading into next week’s draft, but one option has largely been ignored when evaluating the possibilities: Could the solution already be on the roster?

The Lions didn’t promote Jace Billingsley off the practice squad late last season for no reason. They wanted to ensure they controlled the young receiver’s rights heading into the offseason. Could the undrafted free agent who generated some buzz with a strong preseason performance be in play for an expanded role in 2017?

Golden Tate, the team’s leading receiver last season, sees it as a realistic possibility.

“I think everyone has an opportunity to help us win games this year and Jace is one who sticks out,” Tate said. “Ten years from now, I’ll still think about Jace. He’s a hard-working guy, shows up early, leaves late, works his tail off in the weight room, makes it his mission to be the first one to work his way through the line in sprints, and he’s shifty.”

Tate knows a thing or two about being elusive in the open field. He regularly ranks near the top of the league in yards after the catch. Billingsley, who checks in at 5-foot-9, 189 pounds, flashed some of those same skills on the practice field and in the preseason last year.

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In the preseason opener, he made four Steelers tacklers miss before diving between two defenders for a 27-yard touchdown. Then, in the finale against Buffalo, he took a short pass and turned it into a 47-yard gain —part of a seven-reception, 80-yard outing.

“He works really hard,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He’s been up here this offseason. I’ve seen him running, catching tennis balls, that kind of stuff. He does everything you want a pro to do. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully he goes out there and plays great. I know he’s putting the work in to do it.”

Billingsley spent most of last season on the practice squad before being promoted before the regular-season finale. The move is similar to how the Lions handled defensive lineman Kerry Hyder the season before, promoting him late in the year to ensure another look the following offseason.

Hyder turned that opportunity into a roster spot and went on to lead the Lions with eight sacks last season.

“I’m excited for (Billingsley) to get his opportunity in practice and going into the preseason,” Tate said. “He made this team for a reason. I hope to see him out there. I trust him. I think he’s a heck of a player. I like to call him the ‘White Thunder.’ ”