Over the next several days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: Fourth and fifth receivers.
Allen Park — Replacing Calvin Johnson was never intended to be a one-person job.
Following the former All-Pro’s retirement last season, the Detroit Lions were largely able to fill the production void by spreading the ball around.
Buoyed by the offseason additions of Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin, the pair, along with the returning Golden Tate, combined to record 213 receptions accounting for 2,591 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The fourth option on the depth chart, Andre Roberts, primarily served as a kick returner. But despite a modest stat line of 14 grabs for 188 yards, he was responsible for season-altering catches in two of the team’s more improbable come-from-behind victories.
Tate and Jones return in 2017, a more-than-capable tandem, but Boldin (although he’s still a free agent) and Roberts have moved on, leaving holes that a slew of young talent will compete to fill.
One roster spot is all but guaranteed to third-round draft pick Kenny Golladay, the highly productive Northern Illinois standout, who, at 6-foot-4, brings some much-needed size to the corps.
With the steep jump in competition, growing pains should be expected, but Golladay often looked sharp during the early stages of Detroit’s offseason program. He appears more than capable of contributing early, even if he’s not going to be a one-to-one replacement for Boldin’s heavy workload.
Beyond that trio, there’s one, likely two more jobs up for grabs.
Last season, the Lions broke camp carrying four receivers, but that was far easier to do with Boldin and Roberts’ veteran experience. Keeping five, a more traditional number, makes more sense given the group’s relative inexperience. It would also give offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter the opportunity to better play the matchups as he prepares his weekly game plan.
The veterans of the remaining options are Jared Abbrederis and TJ Jones. Both were selected in the latter stages of the 2014 draft and missed their rookie seasons due to injury. Abbrederis has appeared in 15 games the past two seasons with the Packers, hauling in 10 passes, while Jones netted 15 receptions in 13 games during the same stretch with the Lions.
During the early stages of the offseason program, both looked sharp, appearing to be well ahead of their competition from a route-running standpoint.
Another player who will be in the mix is fan favorite Jace Billingsley, the diminutive super athlete from Winnemucca, Nev.
After showing impressive, open-field playmaking ability last preseason as an undrafted rookie, Billingsley earned a spot on the Lions practice squad, where he spent much of his rookie year. A late-season promotion to the active roster didn’t result in playing time, but protected him from being poached by another team as a free agent and giving the Lions another offseason to evaluate the former running back turned slippery slot receiver.
The ability to return kicks and punts could be a separating factor in what figures to be a tight race throughout August. Billingsley and Jones have handled kickoffs have worked in those roles for the Lions in the past, while Abbrederis worked as a punt returner in college and has dabbled on kickoffs during his time in Green Bay.
That’s certainly Keshawn Martin’s best bet to make Detroit’s roster. The former Michigan State standout has a wealth of experience on special teams, returning 174 kickoffs and punts during his career.
The fringe contenders from the group are Ryan Spadola, a practice squad journeyman, and undrafted rookies Dontez Ford, Michael Rector, Noel Thomas.
While this competition may not command attention at first glance, it is important. Roberts proved the value of a fourth receiver last season, both as a return man and a weapon deployed in clutch situations. And no one should need a reminder, following left tackle Taylor Decker’s injury, that a team’s depth is one play away from being asked to fill a much bigger role.
Abbrederis, Billingsley and TJ Jones aren’t likely to be top jersey sellers any time soon, but one could end up playing a critical role for the Lions at some point this season.
Lions camp battles
Day 1:Left tackle
Day 3: Fourth, fifth receivers
Thursday: SAM linebacker
Friday: Left guard
Saturday: Fourth, fifth defensive ends
Monday: Fourth running back
Tuesday, July 25: Backup defensive tackles
Wednesday, July 26: Backup quarterback