'Just the beginning': Rising star Kenny Golladay takes big-picture approach with Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Kenny Golladay is featured on a mural with Calvin Johnson at the Lions' practice facility.

Allen Park — The lobby at the Detroit Lions practice facility got a makeover this offseason. Included in the new design are dueling murals, recognizing greats from both the franchise's past and present. 

On the back wall, quarterback Matthew Stafford is sandwiched between Barry Sanders and Lem Barney, two Hall of Famers who both wore No. 20 for the Lions. And on the front wall, a 10-foot painting showcasing a pair of receivers, Calvin Johnson and Kenny Golladay. 

Given that group's accomplishments, Golladay might seen out of place; this is only his third NFL season. But there's little doubt his arrow is pointing up. He's coming off his first 1,000-yard season and all signs point to him being the No. 1 receiver this season. Still, he was selected over other deserving options, including cornerback Darius Slay, free-agent addition Trey Flowers, and even running back Kerryon Johnson. 

Asked about his inclusion in the artwork, Golladay said he didn't even notice his oversize portrait until position coach Robert Prince pointed it out, and even now, the young receiver, mirroring some of Johnson's well-known humility, tried to downplay it. 

"It's just a picture," Golladay said. 

Kenny Golladay

But it's more than that. It's recognition of both Golladay's talents and his potential. With each jaw-dropping catch, he's quietly becoming one of the faces of the franchise. And when you put it that way, the honor isn't lost on him. 

"Yeah, just coming from Chicago, transferring (colleges), having to sit out a year, just starting from the bottom really coming into the NFL, being drafted in the third round, I’m still just trying to solidify myself in this league," he said. 

Coming out of Northern Illinois, Golladay was the 12th receiver selected in the 2017 draft. And despite some big moments his rookie year, including two touchdowns in the season opener, he had a relatively quiet year due to nagging league injuries limiting his playing time. 

The breakout came in 2018, starting with seven catches and 114 yards in Detroit's primetime loss to the Jets to open the season and peaking with 146 yards on seven catches in a Week 16 victory over Buffalo. 

It was a significant year for his development, since he had to adjust to extra attention he was receiving from defenses, particularly down the stretch, when Golden Tate was traded away and Marvin Jones was hurt.

Kenny Golladay makes the winning touchdown catch in front of Panthers cornerback James Bradberry late in the fourth quarter of Detroit's win in 2018.

Part of that development involved moving around the field more, including time in the slot. 

"I thought we were able to do a couple different things for him, move him around and kind of get him out the box, as far as things he has done in the past, and I think he really grasped that concept really well," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "One of the reasons we did that, obviously, because coming out of the first year he is not unknown anymore. People are going to be looking for him, and at that point, for us, it was: How do we just get him in good positions?"

Coming into this season, the Lions know they'll have a tough time catching opponents off-guard with Golladay, regardless of where he lines up. He's going to have to adjust again, and more importantly, continue to refine his fundamentals if he's going to consistently win his matchups. That will be the next step in his evolution, one where if he's successful, can elevate him to the ranks of the league's best at his position. 

Golladay oozes a mix of confidence and humility when looking at that big picture. 

"This is just the beginning, I feel like," he said. "I'm still growing as a receiver, I'm only coming into my third year, I'm still young in the game. I understand that. The coaches, they remind me of that all the time. I don't ever want to get a big head, so if it's out there taking extra reps or staying after practice or doing extra, I'm all for it."

Golladay has personal goals the upcoming season, but he's keeping them just that, personal. He's not about to throw out something outlandish, like Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who said he's eyeing 3,000 yards. 

Jones, of course, is also looking for a new contract. And after New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas scored a five-year, $100 million extension on Wednesday, Jones is primed to break the bank. 

Golladay isn't too far away from that conversation, either, assuming he can continue to raise his level of play. He has two years remaining on his rookie deal, but could be in position to command an extension a year early like Thomas just did. 

That's out of sight, out of mind for the young Lion right now. 

"I look at it like this, man: As long as I do what I've got to do on the field, all of the other contract negotiations, I’m going to leave that up to my agent and everything and all of that is going to take care of itself," he said. "As long as I’m out there making plays then I just know I put my best foot forward to set myself up for success."