The Lions started the season with Calvin Johnson and Patrick Edwards outside and veteran Nate Burleson in the slot.
That configuration lasted exactly one game.
Edwards played his way off the roster, while Burleson thrived in the outside role. Kris Durham played as the third wideout, with Burleson and Johnson both playing the slot role.
When Ryan Broyles came back in Week 3, the hope was that the position would finally have some stability. It returned Burleson to his more natural outside role, and it pushed Durham down to the fourth wideout role, where he ideally belongs.
Unfortunately, Broyles never looked recovered from his torn ACL. The second-year player proved to be a minor threat, catching just eight passes in parts of six games before tearing his Achilles.
Broyles is now out for the year, and his future with the Lions is in real jeopardy. He has suffered significant season-ending injuries three years in a row.
The bigger whammy came when Burleson was injured in a pizza-related car crash before Week 4. Once again the wide receiver shuffle was on.
Kevin Ogletree was the next man up as Broyles struggled and Burleson rehabbed. He was claimed from Tampa Bay after Week 4 and played extensively in Week 6 against Cleveland. Yet he has caught just five passes in as many games, and he's been blanked in the last two games.
Newcomer Jeremy Ross has now taken over for Ogletree. He was signed to the practice squad after Green Bay waived him following Week 4. Ross was activated for the Week 7 game against Cincinnati and saw eight snaps.
His workload picked up considerably in the Dallas game in Week 8. He served as the primary slot receiver as well as taking over the return specialist duties from Micheal Spurlock. That uptick pervaded into the win over Chicago, where Ross once again saw more action than Ogletree.
Jeremy Ross getting the start at slot receiver. Long way from being cut by Green Bay.— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) November 10, 2013
Here is a breakdown of the snap counts for Ogletree and Ross over the last three games.
|Player||vs. CIN||vs. DAL||vs. CHI|
Ross has some desirable traits for the slot. He’s a hair under six feet tall and a sturdy 215 pounds. The Cal product had a very impressive pro day back in 2011. As reported by noted draft analyst Russ Lande of the Sporting News,
Not only did he run very well—in the mid 4.4s—but he shined in the position drills. He ran very good routes, showing the ability to get in and out of breaks smoothly and displaying good burst out of his cuts.
Those attributes have been on display in Detroit, notably the burst out of cuts. Here is a play from the Chicago game where he flashed the ability to cut and burst.
Ross initially slants inside, but he plants hard and snaps outside. He sells the slant route nicely, getting the cover man to turn his hips inside and creating a lot of room after his quick break.
Even though this play was a pass to the other side, Ross' effort caught my eye. He also stood out on his 11-yard reception early in the third quarter.
Ross is in the slot with nickel corner Isaiah Frey aligned in man coverage. As Ross breaks from the line, he jumps a bit instead of directly taking off. It's not ideal technique, but it worked well enough here.
Ross gears down quickly and has a lot of room as Frey has to also account for tight end Brandon Pettigrew. As he catches the pass, this is where the young journeyman is at his best.
He snares the pass with his hands cleanly. But what stands out is how quickly he accelerates straight up the field. Ross is at full speed in a flash. That's something that Broyles and Ogletree cannot offer.
From a technical standpoint, Ross is adequate with his routes. Other receivers, including Broyles, can stop quicker from full speed. That is a key attribute for operating in the slot.
I noticed that Ross could sharpen his cuts. When comparing him to prominent slot receivers like Wes Welker or even Jerricho Cotchery, Ross rounds out of his cuts more than the accomplished veterans.
The Lions attempted to run a red-zone play for Ross in the Dallas game, and it highlighted some of his inadequacies. He's not sharp immediately off the line, which is exacerbated in a short-field situation.
Also, Ross did not use his hands or shoulders to generate any separation. That comes across in watching several of his routes. Good slot receivers use their arms to leverage defenders and create space for themselves, but Ross lacks that ability at this point.
Another issue is his blocking. Just as he's not polished in using his body or hands to get separation, he's neither physical nor particularly effective as a blocker. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Ross' run blocking at minus-1.1 against Chicago.
With Burleson set to return to the lineup as soon as this week, Ross might not get much more of a chance to prove he belongs. Even though he has clearly overtaken Ogletree, he's still fourth in the wide receiver pecking order behind Johnson, Burleson and Durham.
Considering how infrequently the Lions use four wide receivers in a formation, Ross figures to spend his time on special teams and as an injury fill-in. I believe he can do quite well in that capacity.
In the longer term, Ross has shown enough to merit a roster spot heading into next summer's training camp. Considering the Lions are his fourth team since entering the league in 2011, an offseason with some stability and relative security might allow him to blossom.
Jeremy Ross has provided a little bit of a spark in the slot, but he's probably not going to be the long-term answer. His better bet is as a reserve receiver and return specialist, a role the Lions happen to need both now and going forward.