Allen Park — Top to bottom, you can make a reasonably convincing argument the Detroit Lions have the NFL’s best receiving corps.
The group may lack a superstar — an All-Pro talent like Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Atlanta's Julio Jones or New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. — but make up for that with a versatile, talented and productive group.
Marvin Jones is a true deep threat, coming off his first 1,000-yard season where he led the NFL in yards per catch (18 yards). And entering his second season, Kenny Golladay has also shown an ability to stretch the field vertically. His 17 yards per reception in 2017 would have ranked fourth in the league had he played enough games as a rookie to qualify.
Those two are complemented by Golden Tate in the slot. The NFL’s king in yards after the catch, he’s made more tacklers miss than anyone at his position since coming to Detroit, while catching at least 90 balls each of those four seasons.
And TJ Jones rounds out the unit, a steadily improving young veteran who can play inside and outside and keep the chains moving. Of his career-best 30 catches last season, 22 resulted in first downs.
With good health, the Lions could enter the regular season with just those four and probably be fine. That was the team’s approach in 2016, when they carried four receivers to start that year — Tate, Jones, Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts.
That’s convenient flexibility for a team that might want to keep six running backs, including a fullback, or a fourth tight end, but there’s plenty of time before those roster decisions need to be made. In the meantime, a hungry group of young receivers are doing all they can to show they’re worthy of joining the established four.
Jace Billingsley, participating in his third training camp with the Lions, is leading the way.
It’s easy to remember when Billingsley first arrived in Detroit. A small school running back, he looked wildly overmatched his first few weeks on the practice field. After managing to avoid the bottom of the roster churn, he rewarded the team’s patience with rapid improvement.
Billingsley has flashed playmaking ability the past two preseasons, served as a valuable member on the practice squad — simulating a variety of top offensive weapons from Brown to Carolina's Christian McCaffrey — and even had a few cups of coffee on the main roster, although he’s yet to record his first official catch.
But three years later, Billingsley looks like a different player on the practice field, routinely getting separation from cornerbacks who are not at the bottom of the roster but those competing for a starting job. Not only that, the Lions are giving him reps at running back, his position at Eastern Oregon, to test the limits of his offensive versatility.
He’ll need to also prove capable on special teams. That would appear to be a challenge for the 5-foot-9, 189-pounder, but he’s deceptively strong and is capable of putting up 400 pounds on a bench press.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s tough and plays hard, plays fast,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “So, in some of those time and space plays — those are the big key words right now — where guys are quick and can move through those space plays at a high level, they have a lot of value. So, that’s a great opportunity for him to prove that to us.”
Similar to Billingsley, undrafted rookie Brandon Powell is trying to overcome questions about his 5-foot-8, 181-pound frame. What can’t be questioned is his quickness. Defensive backs have struggled all camp to keep up with Powell, who accelerates quickly when changing direction, easily creating separation.
“Very quick, very fast, explosive type of player,” Patricia said. “Really has multiple-down values — third down, fourth down, things like that, early downs. So, we will just keep putting him out there and letting him compete. He’s doing a good job so far.”
Powell also offers some return man ability, which figures to get tested in the preseason, but that carries limited value with All-Pro Jamal Agnew on the roster.
It’s easy to think of the New England Patriots, Patricia’s longtime employer, when watching the way Billingsley and Powell operate. For years, New England’s offense has thrived utilizing quick, undersized offensive weapons such as Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman. Patricia has plenty of experience with those guys on the practice field and understands the problems they can present a defense.
“I’m not going to categorize any receiver as normal — tall, small; whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter,” Patricia said. “It’s how they produce. I have been around really big ones and really small guys and guys that do different things, so it’s really about the production out on the field.”
Beyond the two slot standouts, Teo Redding and Chris Lacy are two other options who have stood out this offseason. Redding (6-1, 181) was a walking highlight reel throughout the early stages of the offseason and first days of camp, while Lacy (6-3, 205) has been the steadier target in recent days.
We won’t know for another month how the roster will shake out, but this group of young receivers is certainly giving the team’s talent evaluators plenty to think about. They’ve got four preseason games to state their cases, starting Aug. 10 in Oakland.