According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, the Lions informed Burleson he was being released on Thursday, less than a month before the start of free agency. The move saved Detroit $5.5 million in salary-cap room, but it also took away another receiver from the already-lacking group behind Calvin Johnson.
Burleson, 32, represented the most productive No. 2 receiver the Lions have possessed since acquiring Johnson with the second pick in the 2007 draft.
After signing a five-year, $25 million deal with the Lions in 2010, Burleson went on to have a productive four-year span in Detroit, catching 194 passes for 2,083 yards and 12 touchdowns over 45 games. He hauled in six touchdowns in 2010, before posting 73 catches, 757 yards and three scores for the Lions during a playoff season one year later.
Burleson's last two seasons in Detroit were riddled by significant injury. He missed 17 of the 32 games since 2012 to leg and forearm injuries, catching just 66 passes with three touchdowns as a result.
|Nate Burleson in Detroit: 2010-2013|
Given his age (he'll be 33 by the start of next season), growing injury history and price (he was due $7.5 million in 2014), Burleson was a necessary cut for the cap-tight Lions.
Now, the mission to find a suitable replacement for Burleson—and a competent running mate for Johnson—can proceed full steam ahead.
No. 2 receiver ranks near the top of Detroit's list of offseason needs, considering the personnel in place and the production received behind Johnson in 2013.
The Lions currently have five receivers on the roster besides Johnson: Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Kevin Ogletree, Jeremy Ross and Michael Spurlock. Of those, only Broyles is currently under contract for next season (Durham and Ross are exclusive-rights free agents). Even fully intact, it's arguably the worst group of secondary receivers in the NFL, a reality that makes Johnson's dominance all the more impressive.
Durham is tall and athletic, but he's probably best served as a No. 3 or 4 option. Broyles, a former second-round pick, is coming off a major injury for the third straight season. Ross and Spurlock were mostly special teams weapons, while Ogletree caught just 13 passes in 12 games.
In previous seasons, draft picks such as Titus Young (second round in 2011) and Derrick Williams (third round in 2009) have left Detroit as clear-cut busts. A 2012 trade for Mike Thomas was a dud.
Injuries and acquisition misses have resulted in limited production behind their All-Pro receiver.
In 2013, the Lions received 84 receptions, 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns from Johnson, but only 108 catches, 1,390 yards and five scores from all other receivers on the roster. That's simply not good enough, especially given how much attention is thrown at Johnson every Sunday and the volume of Detroit's passing game.
|Missing a Wing Man: Lions WRs in 2013|
|Totals w/o Johnson||108||1390||5|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Absent of a true No. 2 receiver, the Lions completed 107 passes to running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell last season.
The two games Johnson missed in 2013 also provide compelling evidence for how depth-challenged the Lions are at receiver.
In the 14 games the Lions played with Johnson, Detroit averaged 26.6 points, 410.2 total yards and 291.3 yards passing. In the two games he missed, the Lions' averages dropped to 11 points, 265.5 total yards and 202 passing yards, mostly because quarterback Matthew Stafford struggled to find receivers open in the passing game.
During the two games without Johnson—an October loss to the Green Bay Packers and a season-finale loss to the Minnesota Vikings—Lions receivers caught a grand total of 19 passes, or less than 10 a game.
Complementing Johnson with better talent is a must.
At age 28, Johnson is still in his receiving prime. And if the Lions handle him correctly over the next three to four seasons, he should be able to continue producing huge numbers well into his current contract, which expires after the 2019 season.
Detroit is likely to have ample options for finally solving its problems at No. 2 receiver.
Unrestricted free agency figures to be flooded with second-tier receivers, including Anquan Boldin, Kenny Britt, Julian Edelman, James Jones, Jeremy Maclin, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate. More expensive options such as Hakeem Nicks and Eric Decker could also be available.
If the cash-strapped Lions don't want to spend big bucks on a receiver, the draft is also filled to the brim with receiving talent.
ESPN's Mel Kiper mocked nine receivers in the first round of his second mock draft (subscription required), an astronomical number that is unlikely to realistically unfold come May. There hasn't even been as many as seven in the first round since 2004, and only three (Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson) were taken last April.
Since 2010, an average of three receivers have been drafted in the first 32 picks per year.
Despite some potential unrealism, Kiper's mock does reveal an obvious abundance of receiving talent available. Given the fact the Lions draft at No. 10 and No. 45 in the 2014 draft, the possibility of finding an impact player at both spots seems high.
In the first round, Clemson's Sammy Watkins would be a slam-dunk pick. He's being compared to the likes of Julio Jones and A.J. Green. But if Watkins is off the board—like many expect—other options include Mike Evans of Texas A&M, Marqise Lee of USC, Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State or Odell Beckham of LSU.
In recent years, teams have found impact receivers in the second round. Among those are Robert Woods (Buffalo Bills, 2013), Alshon Jeffery (Chicago Bears, 2012), Torrey Smith (Baltimore Ravens, 2011) and Randall Cobb (Packers, 2011).
At No. 45, the Lions could have the chance to draft Penn State's Allen Robinson, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, LSU's Jarvis Landry or Fresno State's Davante Adams.
The options are numerous for the Lions in both free agency and the draft. Who is selected might come down to the preferences of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
"I’d like big and fast," Lombardi said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.
So would all 31 other offensive coordinators in the NFL.
Lombardi later expanded on his answer:
But, listen, if I was going to give a stock answer, I know what Calvin can do, how he can stretch the field, what his strengths are. I don’t really know what his weaknesses are right now, but, I’m sure, maybe there’s something. So you would say, 'Well, someone to work underneath.' You know, that would be an easy answer, but if that guy exists and there’s someone better that maybe does a little something, I’d rather have the better guy.
It shouldn't be difficult for the Lions to find a receiver better than the current players behind Johnson, especially now that Burleson is looking for employment.
The Lions entered this offseason with a clear need already existing at receiver. Releasing one of their veterans only reinforces the fact that Detroit needs to spend—either in the form of free-agent dollars or draft capital—on fixing a position that was only momentarily solved by Burleson.