The Detroit Lions arrive at the NFL Scouting Combine with a chance to get a closer look at one of the more impressive classes of incoming wide receivers.
Luckily for the Lions, receiver ranks highly on their list of needs this offseason.
While no team in the NFL is better off at the top of the receiver depth chart, the Lions have next to nothing behind perennial All-Pro Calvin Johnson. Years of attempts to provide Johnson a capable running mate have come up mostly empty, with Nate Burleson—who was released last week—representing the best of the acquisitions.
Failures include draft busts such as Titus Young, a second-round pick in 2011, and Derrick Williams, a third-rounder in 2009. A 2012 trade for Mike Thomas provided little to no help.
The remaining personnel behind Johnson is shaky, at best. In fact, very few teams have less behind a singular star than the Lions at receiver.
Basically the Lions are planning to meet with any receiver who's any good this week at the #NFLCombine— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) February 21, 2014
Kris Durham was a de facto No. 2 for most of last season, but he provided marginal production and is probably best suited to be a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. He caught 38 passes in 2013. No other returning receiver hauled in more than 13.
Former second-round pick Ryan Broyles has been a major disappointment, and he'll be coming off his third season-ending injury to start 2014. Kevin Ogletree, Jeremy Ross and Michael Spurlock finish off the depth chart, with only Ross possessing any kind of long-term potential. Ross caught just five passes over 10 games.
The numbers from last season help explain how big of a need receiver remains for Detroit.
Over 14 games, Johnson caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns. The rest of the Lions receivers finished 2013 with 108 catches for 1,390 yards and five scores.
For more perspective, consider that Reggie Bush and Joique Bell—the offense's two primary running backs—caught 107 total passes last season.
Even more concerning was how poorly the Lions offense played without Johnson, who missed two games. Over those two weeks—both of which ended in losses—Detroit averaged just 11 points and 265.5 total yards.
Finally, the Lions are just 5-7 over the last two seasons when Johnson is held under 100 yards receiving.
Detroit has committed major resources to fixing Matthew Stafford this offseason, but just as important to his development will be the addition of options after Johnson. The Lions have been a poor offense without their top receiver, or when defenses have concentrated efforts to take away Johnson altogether.
Both free agency and the draft will be avenues of acquisitions at the position. But given how deep the 2014 draft class is expected to be, there's no reason why the Lions wouldn't use at least one pick on a receiver in May.
For now, expect the Lions to use the NFL combine to further their evaluation of the many prospects available that could fill the obvious void behind Johnson.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock on the receiver class, via NFL Communications:
Really interesting because it's the best wide receiver draft I've seen in years...There's more quality at the top end of this draft than I've seen in a long time and from a position standpoint; you know, we talked about wide receiver.
ESPN's Mel Kiper, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
Look at all the receivers that go late, if not at all, and contribute and get it done. So just because you go in the fifth, sixth, seventh round doesn’t mean you won’t have a heck of a rookie year and be a major contributor. This is not an exact science. I wouldn’t lock in and say, if you don’t get one here, you’re not going to get one. You’re going to find, still, guys that are very underrated and surprise.
NFL Combine Wide Receivers Big Board
|2.||Mike Evans||Texas A&M||6'4"||225|
|3.||Kelvin Benjamin||Florida State||6'4"||230|
|6.||Brandin Cooks||Oregon State||5'10"||190|
|7.||Davante Adams||Fresno State||6'1"||215|
|8.||Donte Moncrief||Ole Miss||6'3"||225|
|9.||Allen Robinson||Penn State||6'3"||210|
*Lions pick at No. 10 overall
Prospects to Watch
Sammy Watkins, Clemson
A true stud with top-10 potential and difference-making skills. He's the full package: size, speed, hands, college production and big-play ability. Even NFL tacklers will have problems getting him on the ground after the catch. Teaming him with Johnson would be borderline criminal for opposing defenses, who would be forced week-in and week-out to pick which player to focus attention on. The Lions might have to move up to get him, however.
Mike Evans, Texas A&M
His size is so appealing. He stands 6'4" and even plays bigger than that at times, using his frame, long arms and basketball background to go get the football. He'll immediately be a red-zone weapon.
The big question mark is how his long speed and short-area quickness will translate to the NFL, but he continually played good corners in the SEC and still put up big numbers. Johnson and Evans would immediately become the most physically dominant starting receivers in the NFL. Watch to see his timed runs in Indianapolis.
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
Maybe no receiver at the combine has as much to gain as Benjamin, a physically dominant player in terms of size and future potential. Receivers standing 6'4" and weighing 230 pounds don't just grow on trees, especially those who catch 15 touchdowns for a national champion. His question mark—like Evans—is long speed. If he runs a faster-than-expected time at the combine, his draft stock will skyrocket.
Marqise Lee, USC
Polished in all aspects of receiver play, with the game-breaking ability and return potential, Lee has all the attributes of a No. 1 receiver—save for maybe size. He's 5'11" and a lean 195 pounds, and injuries plagued him during his final year at USC. Maybe the injury history will scare off the Lions. But a healthy Lee might just be the ideal candidate to play alongside Johnson. Running a good time in Indianapolis will solidify him as a top-40 pick.
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
He doesn't have even average size, but he'll use his quickness, route running and sound hands to be productive at the next level. The production was certainly there at the college level, where he caught 128 passes as a junior. He can also provide after-the-catch ability, despite his limited size. If the Lions want to add a shifty, underneath receiver to complement Johnson, Cooks makes sense. And he won't cost the Lions a top pick, either.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
He weighs just 189 pounds, and there isn't one dominant athletic trait he can fall back on. But who is betting against him becoming a productive receiver, both on the outside as a vertical threat and in the slot as an underneath option? He did both well in Madison, Wisc. It'd be easy to envision him catching 70-80 passes right away while taking advantage of favorable coverages provided by Megatron. And unless he blazes through the combine, the Lions won't have to use a top pick on him.