The reintroduction of receiver Ryan Broyles to the Detroit Lions offense ramped up in importance Tuesday morning.
According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, starter Nate Burleson broke his arm in two places during a one-car accident in suburban Detroit Monday night. The Lions leading receiver will undergo surgery Tuesday and is out indefinitely.
Burleson, 32, had a team-high 19 catches over three games in 2013, including six for 116 yards against the Washington Redskins in Week 3. He was Detroit's go-to option in the slot to start this season.
The spotlight will now shift to Broyles, who has been slowly eased back into the Lions plans after suffering his second major knee injury in as many years last December. Detroit kept Broyles inactive in each of the first two weeks, but he made his debut last Sunday and caught three passes for 34 yards.
According to Tim Twentyman of the Lions official website, Broyles is expected to take over Burleson's role in the slot moving forward.
When healthy, the 192-pound Broyles has excelled playing inside.
The former second-round pick ran 122 of his 190 total routes from the slot last season, per Pro Football Focus. He caught 17 of his 22 targets there for 242 yards, and he led the Lions receivers in slot percentage (64.2) and slot catch rate (77.3). His yards per route run of 1.98 from the slot was second to only Calvin Johnson.
In comparison, Burleson caught 17-of-26 targets for just 138 yards while lining up inside last season.
Against Washington in Week 3, Broyles caught two of his three passes from the slot for 31 yards. Burleson was leading the Lions through three weeks with 10 catches for 90 yards inside, but the majority of the heavy lifting will now have to be done by Broyles.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was complimentary of the debut of his oft-injured receiver last Sunday.
"Every time he’s gone in the game for us, he’s made plays," Schwartz said, per Carlos Monarrez of the Free Press. "He did the same thing in this game. I think he played 17 or 18 plays in this game, which we had talked about, was sort of a good pitch count for him."
The Lions might have to throw out the pitch-count idea now.
Detroit is woefully thin at receiver, especially with Patrick Edwards dealing with a bum ankle. Behind Johnson, Edwards and Broyles, the pass-happy Lions have only Michael Spurlock and Kris Durham available. That duo has just two catches for 44 yards this season.
Both Durham and Spurlock may have to play an increased number of snaps in the coming weeks as Broyles slowly regains confidence in his surgically-repaired knee and Edwards' ankle heals.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew may also choose to add a receiver. Dave Birkett reported that Detroit worked out three receivers on Monday, although the specific names of those receivers were not known:
Currently available receivers include Brandon Lloyd, Austin Collie, Steve Breaston, Laurent Robinson, Devin Aromashodu and Early Doucet. The Lions may choose to bring in another set of receivers on Tuesday, when the majority of teams hold workouts.
The trade route is another possibility. Twentyman reported Tuesday that the Lions have reached out to teams to gauge the availability of receivers. Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns could be one name being discussed, but his price tag might be more than what Detroit wants to spend, especially after sending a 2014 draft pick for Mike Thomas last season.
Even if no roster move is made, the Lions can still help alleviate the impact of Burleson's loss by continuing to lean on a pair of talented running backs out of the backfield.
Over just five combined games, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have teamed up to catch 21 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns. No other running back duo in the NFL has as many total catches, yards or yards after the catch (244) than Detroit's. That can be expected to continue as the Lions transition into life without a veteran receiver available opposite Johnson.
Last season provided the groundwork for such a theory. After Burleson went down with a broken leg in Week 6 of last season, the Lions threw to running backs 61 times over the final 10 games, including 36 to Bell.
Broyles, who played in 10 games as a rookie, caught 19 of his 22 passes after Burleson's injury.
The Lions haven't set a timetable for Burleson's return, but a fractured bone typically comes with a recovery time of at least four to six weeks. Tuesday's planned surgery may push that estimate out further, possibly even to two months or more, which would leave the still-recovering Broyles with the burden of playing a significant role over an important stretch of games.
The second-year receiver has produced in Burleson's role, but only with cooperating knees.
The Lions may be worried about pushing Broyles back too soon after a second major knee injury less than a year ago, but Monday night's unfortunate accident will likely push his reintegration into hyperdrive.