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Is Kenny Golladay the Biggest Rookie Sleeper This Year?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 15, 2017

Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay (19) celebrates after catching a 23-yard pass for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Wide receiver is often a position where, outside of the top tier, rookies need more time to adjust. They're asked to run an expanded route tree, and the cornerback across from them presents a steep challenge.

There are exceptions, though, and Kenny Golladay is looking like one.

Golladay was the Detroit Lions' pick at 96 in the third round. That came after he shined for two seasons at Northern Illinois with 2,285 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on his 160 catches along with 192 rushing yards. His senior season was highlighted by four 100-plus-yard receiving games, and an incredible 226 yards from scrimmage in Week 1.

Golladay's consistent weekly output was the product of the same physical tools now making him stand out for the Lions. He has an imposing blend of size, speed and soft hands. Put it all together, and the 23-year-old has the foundation to quickly blossom into a versatile weapon.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds at the scouting combine, which shows impressive quickness from a large-framed receiver (6'4” and 218 lbs). He can create separation deep, and he can also use his wingspan and bulk to capitalize when separation isn't necessary.

On a basic but important level, the question dividing line mediocre and great receivers is: What did you do when a catch seemed impossible?

In that situation on Sunday, Golladay grappled to win a one-on-one battle physically, and then added valuable yards after the catch.

Golladay made several tough catches, and averaged 17.7 yards per reception in his NFL debut.
Golladay made several tough catches, and averaged 17.7 yards per reception in his NFL debut.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The resulting play won't stick out in the box score of his preaseason debut. And it likely won't be on highlight reels either. But what he did against Indianapolis Colts cornerback Quincy Wilson—a highly touted second-round rookie—showed that Golladay can make his own opportunities in situations where none seemingly existed.

In the first quarter, the Lions faced 2nd-and-8 with Golladay lined up outside to the left. He took an outside release against Wilson, who was playing tight in press coverage. Golladay could only prevail with a bit of muscle.

Wilson matched him stride for stride, mirroring his man as Golladay broke his hitch route off right at the marker. At that point, all parties involved were guilty of grabbing, pulling and ripping. That's the reality of press coverage on the outside. Physicality is a mutual affair within the allowed five yards.

The disadvantage for the receiver is that coming away with the football (see: doing your job) is a tough task when you're busy arm-wrestling. This isn't an ideal position when the ball is headed your way.

Credit: NFL GamePass

Golladay's position became worse a moment later, too. The ball was airborne after being zipped in his direction, and there was no opening for it to slither into.

Credit: NFL GamePass

The next frame should be of a ball being swatted away or intercepted. Being in that position rarely ends well for the receiver. But Golladay isn't most receivers.

He kept his balance through the contact, and eventually won the arm-fighting. Golladay used Wilson's own momentum against him with one last pull. He did that with his right arm, and then the ball was at his shoulder an instant later.

If getting open against impossible odds was the hard part, then the difficulty level of the catch itself was cranked to expert. With Wilson tumbling at his feet, Golladay had to reach as the ball struck him near the shoulder, and then corral it while his body spun around.

Credit: NFL GamePass

He turned what seemed a sure incompletion into a 15-yard gain.

That was just the beginning for Golladay against the Colts. Continually, he turned the tiniest opening into a long reception, or even better, a touchdown. Three plays after outmuscling Wilson the first time, Golladay's strength was the difference in another tight downfield battle.

This time, Golladay gained maybe a half step on Wilson, but then an underthrown ball by quarterback Jake Rudock forced Golladay to adjust quickly. Once again, this frozen frame (20-second mark of the video linked) doesn't show a happy ending, right?

Wrong. Golladay's body control and concentration allowed him to fight off contact while spinning and falling to the ground. The Chicago native used just one hand to get the ball into his body and then clamped down with both to keep it from jostling free as he bounced off the turf.

He converted that inaccurate throw from Rudock into a 23-yard touchdown, and scored again later on another contested catch.

On his second touchdown, Golladay spun once more as he reacted to a back-shoulder throw. Then another familiar scene: The rookie falled backward into the end zone and held on as contact with both the ground and a defensive back came simultaneously.

He finished the afternoon with those two touchdowns and 53 receiving yards, all on only three catches. And as Pro Football Focus noted, Golladay's reliable hands and ability to secure low-percentage receptions led to a sky-high passer rating when he was targeted:

Credit: Josh Norris

Golladay's velcro hands aren't new. He established himself at Northern Illinois as a deep threat with a wide catch radius. He was more than merely a large target. Golladay repeatedly proved he could be trusted in difficult situations, and dropped only five out of 165 catchable passes over his final two college seasons, per PFF.

His entire package—the size to toss cornerbacks around, the speed to go deep and the hands to finish once he gets there—will be valuable to the Lions right away.

Talent can be only half the equation for a rookie who wants to make an immediate impact. Golladay has that part covered, but a late third-round receiver like him also needs opportunities, and those can be hard to find. But in Detroit, Golladay has been inserted into the perfect depth chart for his skill set.

The Lions have an offense that distributes the ball widely. Quarterback Matthew Stafford finished ninth in 2016 with 594 pass attempts, and five Lions pass-catchers had over 50 receptions.

Pro Football Focus @PFF

Kenny Golladay really impressed in the first half https://t.co/J6R9cSOcvn

There will be plenty of chances to contribute, especially in the red zone with Boldin gone now. That's an area where Golladay has thrived throughout training camp. MLive.com's Kyle Meinke wrote glowing words about his "devastating performance" in a recent practice.

"Every day he shows you a little something just in terms of his characteristic ability to catch the ball," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell told Meinke. "He's long, obviously. He's a good target. But he's also got a real wide catching radius, so all over the field we can use him."

Stafford threw only 17 touchdown passes to his wide receivers in 2016, and Boldin was on the other end for eight of them. There's a massive void to fill, and Galladay looks ready to chip in. His size can also help the Lions improve their poor red-zone conversion rate. They scored on only 54.2 percent of their trips in 2016, as Meinke also noted, which ranked 17th.

The Lions need an imposing receiver who can high-point the ball amid heavy traffic and dominate physically. They don't have that with Golden Tate, who is more of an after-the-catch specialist. And they don't have it in Marvin Jones, who faded fast in 2016 and is in danger of becoming a free-agent bust.

Early signs indicate that box has been checked off by Golladay, the likely No. 3 receiver to begin his rookie year. It's early in the preseason after one game with three catches, of course, and like any rookie Golladay still needs to develop. The real learning process will be dialed up as we get further along in the preseason, and the level of competition gradually increases.

But after what we've seen both in training camp and his preseason debut, Golladay could shed his sleeper status quickly.

Chad Johnson is already driving the hype train, and the steaming locomotive is going to get pretty crowded as it chugs toward Week 1.

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