Mobile, Ala. — While not the only factor, the Detroit Lions offense fell off a cliff last season after the team moved wide receiver Golden Tate at the trade deadline.
That’s why replacing Tate this offseason must be a top priority for general manager Bob Quinn.
Thankfully, the Senior Bowl is chock full of explosive slot receivers who could fill Detroit’s roster hole.
In the seven games prior to the Tate trade, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford posted a 98.5 passer rating, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. In the final nine games, the passer rating dipped to 82.7 and his yards per attempt plummeted to 6.18 yards.
Tate’s ability to quickly get open from the slot and make tacklers miss in the open field was sorely missed down the stretch. Among the options at the Senior Bowl who could replicate that skill set is South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, who compared himself to Tate earlier this week.
Deebo is at home in the slot. The 5-foot-11 receiver carries 216 pounds on his sturdy frame and possesses bigger hands and longer arms than most players at his position. That's contributed to making him one of the most sure-handed options working across the middle.
Add that to his ability to pick up those critical yards after the reception, a skill he credits to his dad.
“Growing up, he built into me, don’t let one person tackle you down,” Samuel said. “That’s where the yards after catch come from. It’s just mentally built in and that’s what I go out there and do.”
Additionally, Samuel should provide the team that drafts him a solid option returning kicks. He brought back four kickoffs for touchdowns the past three seasons, averaging 29.0 yards overall.
The biggest concern with Samuel is his durability. He didn’t have issues staying on the field in 2018, when he caught 62 passes for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he missed time the previous two years, first with a hamstring strain as a sophomore and in 2017 with a broken leg.
Samuel has made a strong impression during the first two days of practice at the Senior Bowl, catching the eye of former scout and current draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
“He's stacked two really good days together,” Jeremiah wrote on NFL.com “He probably had the catch of the day on Wednesday on a double move — it was a back-shoulder throw and he adjusted for it to make a really athletic catch. He reminds me a lot of the Panthers' D.J. Moore, who was selected 24th overall last year. Samuel might not go in the first round like Moore did, but I think he's a second-round pick who'll be a really good asset with his ability to run routes, catch the ball and also run the ball.”
If the Lions prefer to address other needs in the first two rounds, there should be plenty of options in later in the draft, including the highly productive Andy Isabella.
A three-year starter at UMass, Isabella is smaller than Samuel, but that didn’t stop the former from being the NCAA's most productive receiver in 2018. He led Division 1 college football with 1,698 receiving yards, and was second with 102 catches.
A former track standout, who ran the 100-meter dash in 10.51 seconds in high school and was hand-timed running the 40 in 4.26 seconds during a recruiting visit to the Air Force Academy, he's hoping to break 4.3 at the combine this month.
Isabella is largely working from the slot at the Senior Bowl, but he split his time evenly inside and outside while at UMass, and believes he can continue to do that in the NFL, despite measuring in at 5-foot-9, 186 pounds.
And while there might be concerns about the level of competition he faced at UMass, Isabella already has put some of those concerns to rest with a 15-catch, 219-yard performance against Georgia last season. And to further prepare for the jump, he’s been working with Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss this offseason.
And if the Lions want to wait even longer, into the draft’s third day to address the slot, they might be able to snag another small school standout, such as Georgia State’s Penny Hart.
Like Isabella, Hart is undersized, checking in at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. Still, he’s quelled some concerns with his performance against some quality cornerback competition this week.
“When you study Hart on tape, don’t blink — you might miss him,” Dane Brugler, draft analyst for the Athletic wrote. “Through two days of practices in Mobile, Hart has been virtually uncoverable due to his combination of athletic twitch and technical understanding of how to create separation. While a lot of athletes are quick, he has the controlled burst that forces defensive backs off balance as they try to mirror his movements.”