This is the final unit of the offense for our consideration. As always, we’ll use the current depth chart as our guide.
To a great extent, the performance of the receivers unit as a whole is dependent upon the ability of every other unit in the offense to execute at an acceptable level on a given play.
Linemen have to keep the QB clean. The running backs have to pick up blitzes and provide check-down options. Tight ends need to engage defenders or get into their pass routes. The center-to-quarterback exchange has to be consistent.
Meanwhile, the multitasking QB must correctly read the defense, execute the three, five, or seven-step drop-back footwork called for in the play design, go through his “progressions” based upon the coverage and deliver the ball to a spot where the receiver, and only the receiver can make a play.
Breakdowns in execution are an inevitable fact of life in the NFL. Here is where the mobility and creativity of the QB is tested, but the receivers have to get open through separation to salvage a broken play.
Not only do the receivers need to run disciplined routes, they must gain that one step of precious separation from the coverage. Speed and agility are a must.
Size also matters. Separation can be achieved vertically on a jump-ball, or by shielding a smaller defender with a large frame.
Gatherers versus Grabbers
While techniques differ in gaining separation, nothing will be effective if the receiver can’t catch the ball.
There are two types of pass-catchers: The gatherers and the grabbers. Of the two, the grabbers will find the greatest success in the NFL, where that split-second it takes for the ball to get into the gatherer’s arms often means failure when the pass is defended. Separation is often momentary as defenders recover.
NFL coaches relentlessly coach young receivers in grabbing the ball away from their bodies. Some get it. Some, despite having superior size, speed and agility can’t make this important adjustment.
Mike Williams and Derrick Williams are two cases in point. Both were gifted athletes. Both could gain separation using their natural athleticism. Both had outstanding college careers.
However, both were gatherers of the ball who couldn’t catch the ball away from their bodies. That deficiency has killed many promising NFL careers.
Roster Considerations and Nomenclatures
Receivers expend a tremendous amount of energy. As a result, they are often platooned to keep legs fresh into the fourth quarter of a game.
My guess is that the Lions will carry six receivers. Two of them have to be greater contributors on special teams as return specialists, or “gunners” on coverage units.
The nomenclature used to describe the three receiver positions varies. The split-ends, who are also referred to as WRXs, or WR1s must line up on the line of scrimmage by rule.
The flankers, who are referred to as WRYs, or WR2s must line up one step behind the tight end. “Covering” the tight end constitutes an illegal formation.
The slot receivers are also referred to as WRZs, or WR3s. They must line up at least one step behind the line of scrimmage in the “slot” between the defensive end and the split-end, or flanker.
On any given play there can be a second slot receiver (the four receiver sets). The split-end and flanker can be interchangeable, depending upon how they line up on a given play. No matter the configuration there must be a minimum of seven players on the line of scrimmage.
Statistics are provided by ProFootballFocus.com Premium Stats (subscription required) unless stated otherwise.
The Lions are blessed with arguably the best wideout in NFL history in Calvin Johnson. “Megatron” can line up at all three receiver positions and usually requires double coverage by opposing defenses.
For an effective range, Johnson has his own Zipcode.
The elder statesman of the unit is returning off the IR (broken fibula). The 11-year veteran checks in at 6’0”, 198 pounds and should easily win the starting role opposite Johnson were it not for a lack of speed.
The loss of a step over the years is amply compensated for by the ease in which he gains separation from defenders. Burleson has become a reliable possession receiver and a favorite target of QB Matt Stafford.
Burleson’s more a slot option these days as the Lions look to replace the speed on the outside lost with the release of Titus Young. That speed can be found in abundance in…..
If size were the top criterion for success as an NFL receiver, Broyles would scarcely be noticed. He’s 5’10”, 188 pounds. In every other aspect, Broyles more than compensates for his being vertically challenged.
Broyles’ ability to catch the ball is beyond question as the FBS All-time leader in career receptions at Oklahoma.
By all accounts, Broyles has looked terrific in minicamp. After rehabbing ACLs in successive years, I’m more than a little anxious to see how Broyles competes with…..
Edwards is the current holder of the prestigious Randy Phillips UDFA Camp Stud Award, conferred upon him in 2012. A quad injury while Edwards was on the practice squad ended his season when he was placed on the IR.
This year, Edwards has won the accolades of Nate Burleson in minicamp. That’s high praise from one of the best in the business. I’ll grudgingly concede that the Burleson seal of approval is even more prestigious than his “Randy” award.
The Lions receiver corps was a mess by Week 8 last year. Burleson’s injury, Broyles being fed the playbook in small bites, Johnson playing dinged up, the mercurial Titus Young and a supporting cast that wouldn’t, or couldn’t step up.
Thomas came to the Lions in a November trade with Jacksonville for a fourth-round draft pick in 2013. With OLBs Alex Okafor and Jelani Jenkins available at that 103rd overall pick, you have to wonder if Thomas will pay dividends commensurate with the price paid for his not-so-stellar 2012 Lions campaign, where he was replaced by….
They call Durham “Vanilla Gorilla” for a reason: At 6’6”, 216 pounds, Durham is the tallest weapon in the arsenal.
He came to Detroit in 2012 as a final training camp cut by Seattle. Durham played only 35 snaps for the Seahawks in 2011 before going on the IR with a torn labrum. Durham was targeted only four times, catching three passes for 30 yards.
As Mike Thomas faltered, Durham was promoted to the active roster in December. He played 224 snaps and was targeted 20 times (catching eight with one TD).
Not blessed with the speed needed to stretch defensive envelopes, Durham did manage to draw attention away from Calvin Johnson as a big receiver should.
With an offseason to build upon, Durham’s routes should improve. As the Lions continue to seek that blend of size and speed that will maximize the effectiveness of QB Matt Stafford’s aerial circus, Durham will face stiff competition from….
The former Kansas track athlete transferred to Virginia Tech where he was a walk-on in 2010. He practiced at split-end while sitting out the season. In 2011, Fuller was used sparingly as his skills were still pretty raw.
Fuller sent scouts and draft analysts alike scurrying for film in 2012 after posting nice numbers and showing improvement that was nothing short of stunning. His bread and butter was catching the ball in stride as he raced past defenders.
Fuller had suddenly become an NFL draft prospect.
Fuller’s combine showcased great speed and footwork, but he dropped several passes. The Lions were intrigued enough to draft Fuller in the sixth round (171st overall). I gave the Lions a B grade for the pick then and wonder how an NFL strength program will impact his training camp performance.
The possibilities are tantalizing for Fuller, who I have in the mix to win a roster spot at the WRY position.
Thomas is another tall target at 6’2”, 221 pounds. Spartan fans will remember Thomas’ junior year, where he reeled in a school record 79 passes. Thomas was a second-round draft pick in 2008 and has been well traveled. He’s played for Washington, Carolina, New York Giants and Chicago Bears, where he unexpectedly retired.
The Lions lured Thomas out of retirement in January 2013 ostensibly as a competitor for kick-return duties.
Thomas has been used as a kickoff return specialist primarily during his career. If he’s to make the roster, he’ll have to do it here.
At 5’10”, 210 pounds, Spurlock has accomplished something that no other player on the roster can claim: He’s returned a punt and a kickoff for TDs in the NFL.
Like Devin Thomas, Spurlock is strictly a return specialist competitor.
Wilson was signed as an undrafted free agent this spring after killing it in his Pro Day workout for scouts who were there to watch his teammate and first overall 2013 draft pick, tackle Eric Fisher.
Unlike the other return specialist wannabes, Wilson actually has some decent skills as a receiver. He’s 5’9”, 191 pounds of slot receiver depth who could actually stick, if only as a practice squad project.
Another journeyman return specialist hopeful, Willis (6’0”, 191 pounds) should keep his bags packed.
The three-year veteran looks like another return specialist audition. He’s 5’11”, 171 pounds. Austin looks like a long shot, at best.
Will the Lions keep a sixth receiver on the roster? Good question, and I’ll project six for the time being.
The competition for Calvin Johnson’s backup role should come down to a duel between Mike Thomas and Kris Durham, who will get (hopefully) a strong push from rookie Corey Fuller.
The WRY role opposite Megatron will be interesting. Nate Burleson will have to fight off Patrick Edwards and Ryan Broyles for the starting role. No matter the outcome, all three look like safe bets to be major contributors with the likelihood that two of the three will be on the field together more often than not.
The Lions have a dizzying array of slot-receiver options: In addition to the the aforementioned Burleson, Broyles and Edwards, the Lions will use RB Reggie Bush (even on the perimeter), a tight end like Joseph Fauria or Tony Scheffler, and even UDFA Cody Wilson will see some reps here in camp.
As many as two return specialists will emerge from what looks to be an entertaining competition between Mike Thomas, Micheal Spurlock, Terrence Austin, Matt Willis and Devin Thomas. Are any of these players the answer?
It’s quite possible that none of the above make the cut if a cornerback and/or a running back steals the return duties. In that case, I see only five WRs making the 53-player roster.
Next Up: The Defensive Linemen
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