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What the Lions should expect from a third receiver

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Even after the acquisition of Golden Tate last season, the Detroit Lions still find themselves missing something in the passing game. With all the options at their disposal, do we know what kind of production to expect from a third pass-catcher?

For years, it seemed like all the Detroit Lions had in the passing game was Calvin Johnson. A cycle of draft picks and free-agent stopgaps attempted to fill the hole, yet no one seemed able to take full advantage of opposing defenses that spent most of their resources stopping one man. In fact, before last season, the most receiving yards a player had playing with Johnson was Shaun McDonald, who had 943 yards -- his career high -- in Megatron’s rookie year.

Of course, you all know the story. Last year, the Lions went and grabbed former Notre Dame standout Golden Tate in free agency. Tate had some unimpressive total receiving numbers in Seattle, but he had shown a knack for making people miss and seemed like a guy who deserved a chance in a more pass-heavy offense. The former Seahawk rose to the challenge last year and set career highs in basically every receiving category, while being probably the biggest reason the Lions were able to sustain some offensive success when Johnson was injured.

Now, the Lions can enter the year confident that they have a great second receiving option. Unfortunately, it seems they now are struggling to find who can be that third playmaker in the passing game. This is especially important considering injuries to Johnson in recent seasons have raised the level of concern going forward. While candidates are aplenty, it is still pretty murky in terms of who will step up and fill in as the team's third receiver.

In 2014, the player with the third-highest amount of receiving yards was Joique Bell with 322, followed closely by Theo Riddick. This doesn’t feel like the kind of production you should get from a third pass-catcher, but how far off was he? While most people probably have a feel for what a team’s top receiver production would ideally look like, getting down to that third option is a little trickier. I attempted to try and find what a typical third pass-catcher looks like in terms of statistical production.

To do this, I took the player on every team who finished third in receiving yards and found the average for the league. The table below shows what Bell did as the Lions' third-most productive receiver compared to the rest of the league.

Targets Receptions Yards Yards/Rec. Touchdowns
Joique Bell 53 34 322 9.47 1
NFL Average (excluding Bell) 79 51 569 11.52 3.9

Clearly, the Lions’ production was below league average, and looking further, Bell was actually 31st in receiving yards compared to other teams’ third-highest receiving total. Sure, when your top two guys are both in the top 20 overall, you can afford to have your third receiving option not be targeted as often, but this still feels pretty low.

This is not at all a slight at Bell. With all the touches he gets in the running game, I wouldn’t expect him to be relied upon as the third-best pass-catcher as well. In fact, Bell was one of only five running backs to be their team’s third-most productive receiver -- others being Fred Jackson, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch.

Two other quick notes:

  • I counted 12 tight ends who were third on their team in receiving yards, led by Jimmy Graham, who somewhat surprisingly finished third on the New Orleans Saints behind Kenny Stills and Marques Colston.

  • The highest yardage total of a third pass-catcher was Brandon LaFell, who finished at 953 yards for the New England Patriots, 27th overall. The lowest was Jamaal Charles, who finished 148th overall with 291 yards.

So, who on the Lions is most likely to put up a 50-catch, 500-yard season to give them at least an average third pass-catcher? Well, Lance Moore has done it before (four times), but not since 2012. Bell actually came close to those statistics in 2012 and 2013, so it isn’t completely off the table that he could get back to posting similar numbers this year, but I expect the play to be divided enough between the three backs -- Bell, Riddick and Ameer Abdullah -- that none of them accrues that much. We all hope Eric Ebron can do this and more, but for him to reach the league average it would require about a doubling in his production from last year.

No one on the current roster has really approached these numbers in their careers, besides Brandon Pettigrew, who is unlikely to ever return to those numbers. In the end, the Lions are likely hoping that Ebron takes the next step and fills in this role. As the 10th pick in the draft, being an average third receiving option would frankly be disappointing, but at least it would be a step in the right direction and provide hope he could improve even more going forward.

*All Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com