Exploring Lions' Top Trade, Free-Agent Options in Wake of Nate Burleson's Injury
In what seems to be an annual adventure, the Detroit Lions are once again scrambling at receiver behind Calvin Johnson.
Per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, starting receiver Nate Burleson broke his left arm in two places during a one-car accident Monday night. He is scheduled to have surgery Wednesday, which will force him out of the Lions lineup indefinitely.
The unfortunate accident couldn't have come at a worse time or position for the Lions, as Burleson was having his best season to date (team-high 19 catches). Now, the Lions have even shakier depth at receiver. Tuesday's developments are likely to force Detroit into action.
According to Tim Twentyman of the team's official site, the Lions have already begun reaching out to teams in regards to receivers available for trade. The team could also bypass the trade route and find a replacement on the free-agent market.
In the following slides, we'll present the top options currently available to the Lions. Both trades and free-agent acquisitions will be considered.
Trade: Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
2013 Stats: 10 catches, 146 yards, one touchdown
On strictly talent alone, the Lions have no better option available than Gordon. He's big (6'3", 225 pounds) and athletic, and there have been flashes of No. 1 receiver ability over his 17 career NFL games. Combining Gordon with Calvin Johnson on the boundary and sliding Ryan Broyles into the slot could create a devastating trio of receiving options for Matthew Stafford.
Gordon has long-standing maturity issues, and it'll only take one more mistake for the NFL to slap him with a full season suspension. Those off-the-field issues might scare away the Lions, who were recently burned by the unsettled Titus Young. The price tag might be considerable, too. If the Lions aren't interested in giving up a top pick, Gordon won't be an option.
Free Agent: Matt Willis
Willis isn't a big name, and signing a player that spent training camp in Detroit won't create the same kind of splash that dealing for a player of Gordon's talent would. But in terms of immediate fit, Willis makes a lot of sense for the Lions.
The 29-year-old receiver made a legitimate push for a roster spot in August, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown over four preseason games with Detroit. In fact, there's a case to be made that Willis was the Lions most impressive receiver during the exhibition schedule.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Willis led the team's receivers with a plus-2.9 grade over 111 snaps. The Lions quarterbacks also had a passer rating of 137.2 when throwing his direction, which was fifth among NFL receivers with at least nine catches in the preseason.
If the Lions can't make a big move via trade, Willis would make a fine fallback option.
Trade: Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans
2013 Stats: Five catches, 43 yards
Like Gordon, Britt is a big and talented receiver who is best suited to play on the outside. When healthy, the former first-round pick can be a dominating force, and he looked like a legitimate No. 1 receiver for stretches early in his career. Britt might not cost much either, especially given his contract status and current playing time.
The Lions would run the risk of Britt being a one-year rental. He's scheduled to be a free agent following 2013. He might also be hard to trust off the field, which could cause Detroit to shy away from making a serious run at him. Maybe most important to the situation is Britt's own injury history. His knees have been through some trauma since entering the NFL, and those surgeries have clearly taken their toll on his ability to impact games.
Free Agent: Laurent Robinson
The Lions worked out Robinson in late July, so there should be a familiarity here that could push along any interest now. Detroit obviously passed on signing the former Cowboys and Jaguars receiver back then, but the scarcity of depth now might cause the Lions to rethink that decision.
During 2011, his last healthy season, Robinson caught 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns for Dallas. He used that breakout season to secure a big deal from Jacksonville the next offseason, but a number of concussions put his immediate football career in jeopardy.
The Lions have dealt with the concussion issue in the past (see: Jahvid Best), and general manager Martin Mayhew might not want to go down that road again. But when healthy, Robinson can play on the outside and in the slot, and he obviously has a nose for the end zone.
Trade: Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
As reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Browns are also shopping Little, Cleveland's second-round pick from 2011.
2013 Stats: 11 catches for 78 yards
In terms of compensation, Little would cost the Lions pennies on the dollar compared to Gordon. It might only take a late-round pick to get him out of Cleveland. Little has played in all 35 NFL games since entering the league in 2011, so injuries wouldn't be a huge worry. While not a burner like Gordon, Little does possess good size for an outside receiver (6'2", 220 pounds). He's still young at only 24.
Little isn't a great athlete. In reality, he shouldn't be considered anything more than a middle-of-the-road possession receiver. Little has just one career 100-yard game, and his career average is under 12 yards per catch. He has really struggled with drops and holding onto the football. There have also been some recent hiccups off of the field.
Free Agent: Steve Breaston
While the 30-year-old receiver was then beat out in New Orleans by a couple of younger options this preseason, he might make sense for the Lions now.
Ryan Broyles is scheduled to be the team's new go-to option in the slot, but he's been eased back into the game plan while returning from a second knee surgery in as many seasons. Breaston, a veteran who has played a number of career snaps from the slot, could be a valuable backup while Broyles works his way back.
Breaston has caught 60-plus passes in a season as recently as 2011. His knees are also shaky, but as strictly a depth player behind Broyles, he could stick.
Free Agent: Mohamed Massaquoi
The fact that both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Jets signed and later released Massaquoi this offseason certainly doesn't bode well for his NFL future. Each club needed receiver help but still sent the 26-year-old packing.
Massaquoi's inclusion on this list simply highlights how shallow the current receiver pool is. An accomplished player like veteran Brandon Lloyd might make more sense, but he now seems content drifting away from the NFL game.
Massaquoi recorded 624 yards and three scores as a rookie in 2009, but he was never able to build on that early success. The Browns let him walk as an unrestricted free agent this past summer.
If there's anything in Massaquoi's corner, it's his collegiate history with quarterback Matthew Stafford. The two both played at Georgia (Massaquoi caught eight touchdowns from Stafford his senior season). Without many better options, the Lions could reunite the duo.
Free Agent: Anthony Armstrong
The Lions worked out the 30-year-old Armstrong on Tuesday, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. Lavelle Hawkins and Charles Hawkins also took part in the workout.
Armstrong is the interesting name among those three. While only 5'11", Armstrong has proven to be a field-stretching outside receiver, and his best season in Washington (2010) saw him average 19.8 yards over 44 catches (871 yards).
Nate Burleson wasn't necessarily a field-stretcher, but the Lions might not be trying to replace him with a move. Armstrong could be seen as more of a replacement for Titus Young, who was a smaller receiver who could also get vertical against defenses.
The Lions should have some comfort in Ryan Broyles' ability to replace Burleson in the slot. Armstrong could help fill out the options on the outside with Patrick Edwards, who is dealing with an ankle injury.