Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers preview the Lions-Steelers game on this week's Lions Lowdown.
Detroit -- Opportunity could be knocking on Lions receiver Jace Billingsley’s door.
With a nagging hamstring injury sidelining rookie Kenny Golladay for a fourth straight game and Golden Tate dinged up with a shoulder injury, Billingsley could be in line to make his NFL debut Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Billingsley’s promotion from the practice squad was largely a reaction to the injuries at the position, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said it was also a nod to the second-year pro’s continued improvement and development.
“He’s growing, he’s getting better and it’s a situation where we had a couple guys banged up as well. That’s the truth about it and we’re just putting ourselves in position to make certain we have answers,” Caldwell said earlier this week. “But he’s done very well. He’s improving daily, hardworking guy and he’s got some exciting elements about his game.”
Since going undrafted out of Eastern Oregon, Billingsley (5-foot-9, 189 pounds) has been the Lions’ leading receiver the past two preseasons, with 12 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns in 2016 and 10 catches for 106 yards this year. However, it hasn’t been enough to crack Detroit’s initial 53-man roster.
Billingsley spent most of last season on the practice squad before he was signed to the active roster for the regular-season finale, but was inactive for the Week 17 matchup against the Packers and NFC wild-card playoff game against the Seahawks.
This time around, Billingsley didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the call-up, a moment that was a welcomed surprise.
“It’s definitely a bigger opportunity to get out there and prove myself,” Billingsley said. “But at the same time, no matter what, it's still week to week and you got one day at a time and you never know what can happen in this league. You just got to attack it one day at a time and see what happens.”
The NFL Network reported Tate, the team’s leading receiver, is dealing with an AC joint sprain he suffered in the game against the Saints on Oct. 15 that will sideline him for at least a couple weeks. Tate said earlier this week he’s still trying to get his strength, mobility and stability back in his shoulder, but he was active for Sunday night's game against the Steelers.
While Billingsley operates primarily out of the slot like Tate, Caldwell dismissed comparisons between the two receivers and stated both have different styles and different levels of quickness.
Earlier this season, though, linebacker Tahir Whitehead wasn’t shy at drawing parallels. He said Panthers rookie running back and top-10 pick Christian McCaffrey reminded him of Billingsley, not the other way around.
But one thing that can’t be refuted is Billingsley’s work ethic. As an undersized small-school standout, he has always made it a priority to give a little bit more effort than everyone else to prove his worth.
“The guy works unbelievably hard,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “He can work with anybody. Whether it’s lifting, conditioning, mental side of the game, he goes about his business the right way, works really hard. He’s getting a lot better.
“I think he’s sort transitioned from his college career a little bit of a running back to a receiver transition. He’s getting really more comfortable playing receiver and I think bright days are ahead for Jace.”
Billingsley said he’s gotten plenty of opportunities in practice against the first-team defense, and has been running routes and building a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford for some time.
Now, Billingsley is just patiently waiting for his chance to prove himself on gameday – an opening that might come Sunday.
“I've been doubted a lot of times throughout my life, so I always look forward to being the underdog,” Billingsley said. “I feel like that's when I perform my best anyways, so I'm just going to try to continue to do so.”