The Detroit Lions went through a lot of changes in the offseason to ensure that they could remain competitive in the NFC North. They fired head coach Jim Caldwell and replaced him with Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, fired offensive line coach Ron Prince and replaced him with Broncos offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, signed Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount, and signed tight ends Luke Wilison and Levine Toilolo from the Seahawks and Falcons respectively.
The last thing you would recognize the Lions as would be a running team. (Not since Reggie Bush in 2013 have the Lions had a 100-yard rusher in a single game.) Instead, the team’s heart and soul lie in the passing game, where quarterback Matthew Stafford has one of the league’s best wide receiving corps.
Indeed, with Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay and T.J. Jones, the Lions are set at the wide receiver position in 2018, and that unit should be one of the most dangerous.
When it comes to wide receiver duos, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs currently belong at the top. Both players are WR1s with legitimate talent to carry their quarterback whenever they need to. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate are in the ballpark behind Thielen and Diggs, and Golladay certainly has more upside to him than Kendall Wright or Laquon Treadwell.
With that said, let’s get the Lions wide receiver role call down, illustrating each wide receiver and how they fit their position perfectly.
It should come as no surprise that Calvin Johnson was the best receiver Matthew Stafford got to play with, as he was a quarterback’s dream. Stafford knew he could throw to Johnson with multiple defenders on him because of Johnson’s gifted talent against contested throws.
Marvin Jones is not as good as Megatron’s prime, but he’s still one of the absolute best vertical receivers in football because of a similar skill set to Johnson.
Jones was the target of some criticism in 2016 after some bad drops, and started out 2017 a little cold. But against the Saints in week 6, Jones caught fire, and proceeded to make monster catch after monster catch for the remainder of the season, ending 2017 with 61 receptions for 1,101 yards and nine touchdowns.
Jones earned his production making tough catches such as the one above. The Vikings have too many men on the field on this play, so Stafford wisely fires a 50/50 ball to Jones in double coverage. Improbably, Jones not only uses his toughness and hands to make the catch, but he also slides away from tackles and picks up the touchdown.
Jones is known primarily for his ball skills, but he also has top notch vertical speed to boot. This makes the relationship between him and Stafford a key factor for the Lions offense. Combined with his sharp route running, Jones is constantly able to create separation downfield, making him a favorable target for Stafford.
This play above highlights how Jones can place the balance between quarterback and receiver in his favor at times. The Lions are facing a 3rd and long, and Stafford extends the play as long as he has to before flinging it in Jones’ direction.
At the worst, this ball would be picked off, but would essentially be an arm punt on a 3rd and 18, so it wouldn’t yield the worst results. And initially, the ball looks like it’s going to be intercepted, but Jones seemingly comes out of nowhere, leaps a great distance horizontally, and steals the interception out of the defensive back’s hands for a miraculous third-down catch.
This is the skill set Jones offers. He gives Stafford a great margin for error so that his passes don’t need to be perfect to be caught, and is a highlight reel machine. Jones was arguably a top five receiver in 2017 in terms of efficiency, consistently racking up outstanding catches while limiting the amount of drops. He’s a ball hawk and a criminally underrated player.
Few free agency signings from the 2010s’ have had the home run success as Golden Tate’s signing with the Lions in 2014. Arguably the league’s best slot receiver, Tate signed a five year, $31 million contract with $13.25 million guaranteed.
It’s safe to say Tate earned every penny of his contract and then some, as he has posted at least 90 catches in each of his first four seasons in Detroit while also amassing 1,000 receiving yards in three of his four seasons in the Motor City.
Tate may be the best all-around receiver at creating yards after the catch because of how good his combination of awareness and athleticism are. He takes all sorts of unconventional but dangerously effective approaches to the ball in order to get the advantage on the defender.
This play truly illustrates how special Tate is as a receiver. It would be enough for him to convert the 3rd and short, which he does. But then he takes it a step further and jumps backward, understanding how big the gap ahead of him is if he escapes the defensive back. He does so, breaks into the open field, avoids a strip tackle, and hilariously flips into the end zone for a sensational touchdown.
Tate’s unique approaches to the ball are part of what make him so fun to watch. He’s arguably the smartest slot receiver in the game, and constantly uses his instincts and footwork to constantly change direction and move the chains for plenty of yards after the catch. It seems like Tate always goes the extra mile on these plays, such as the one above, where he breaks a tackle after picking up the first down while also leaping over another defender.
Like Marvin Jones, Tate’s consistency is nothing short of spectacular. Here, Stafford provides a perfect back shoulder throw to Tate, who makes a fantastic play by just barely tapping his toes in bounds. This catch was looked over by the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast at the time, but it’s one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.
Bottomline, Tate’s ability to quickly change his hips, angles, and break out of seemingly impossible spots for yards after the catch make him one of the NFL’s best slot receivers as well as the second half of an awesome duo with Marvin Jones.
A fan favorite in his rookie season, Kenny Golladay had limited reps due to injuries but made more than enough of an impact for the team to continue to have high hopes for him in future seasons. With 28 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns, Golladay gave Marvin Jones a sweet compliment downfield.
To this point, Golladay is a less polished (to be expected, as he was a rookie) version of Jones. He has excellent, strong hands, which make him a threat against tight coverage at the catch point.
Golladay’s first career game was a nice one, as he made four catches for 69 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Cardinals. The throw above is catchable, but is a little underthrown. The ball should be placed a little higher so that the defender can’t contest it, but fortunately Golladay prevents any harm from occurring on the play. His strong hands allow him to bring the ball in for an impressive first touchdown.
Lions fans generally expect Golladay to be at Marvin Jones’ level at the very least, and to eventually surpass him. That’s a huge compliment to Golladay due to Jones’ high quality, and I have faith that Golladay can be just as effective as Jones during a full season.
Rounding out the Lions’ receiving corps is 2014 6th round pick T.J. Jones, who has done just enough to stick around and earn a spot on the 52-man roster. In 2017, Jones caught 30 receptions for 399 yards and a touchdown as the team’s fourth receiver, and was awarded a one-year contract extension in April.
Jones doesn’t offer an explosive skill set, but he provides value to his role because of how consistent he is. He rarely fumbles the ball and provides the other three receivers a nice breather when it’s his time to shine. He himself has proven he can secure the ball even when it’s asking to be knocked out, such as the play above.
With Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay stretching the field with terrific ball skills and vertical speed, Golden Tate destroying defenses in the slot, and T.J. Jones providing a well-rounded skill set as a fourth option, the Detroit Lions easily have one of the NFL’s best receiving corps, and the best unit of its kind that Stafford has had in his career.
The Lions have done an excellent job dealing with the eventual departure of Calvin Johnson by adding these four receivers. This unit should be a lot of fun to watch in 2018, and should continue to rack up impressive numbers like it did last year.