No position may be more under construction for the Detroit Lions than the wide receiver spot. Obviously, the loss of Calvin Johnson leads headlines with this group of players, but it is really the changes being made at the bottom of the depth chart that are more fascinating. Detroit has long suffered in trying to build receiver depth beyond Megatron and, typically, a serviceable No. 2 catcher. Ryan Broyles, Titus Young and Derrick Williams are all names from the past the Lions have been forced to move on from recently.
Although the Lions didn’t draft a single wide receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft (despite apparently scouting a bunch), they made a ton of additions to the position throughout free agency. Among all of the free agency signings, there appears to be very little certainty on who will make the final 53-man roster. Obviously, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones are your starters, but which receiver has a leg up on the slot receiver position?
Now, before we get into the candidates, it’s probably important to note that tight end Eric Ebron will have a big role as the Lions’ "slot receiver." However, we’re going to put that aside to see who will fill the role in packages without Ebron in the slot.
TJ Jones, Jeremy Kerley, Andre Caldwell, Andre Roberts
TJ Jones is one of the most likely candidates to land the No. 3 receiver job. Jones has slowly been pulling himself out of the bottom of the roster since being drafted in the sixth round in 2014. Jones finally got on the stat sheet in 2015, hauling in 10 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown for the season. Perhaps his biggest leg up is his ability to return punts and kickoffs. Jones returned seven punts and five kickoffs in 2015, including an impressive 28-yard punt return against Denver.
Jeremy Kerley is hot on Jones’ heels. Kerley brings the same special teams abilities as Jones (especially punt returns), but also has a history of decent play in the NFL. Kerley was once a rising star with the New York Jets. In 2012, Kerley caught 56 passes for 827 yards. But when the Jets underwent a regime (and offensive scheme) change and brought in Eric Decker, Kerley’s role significantly diminished, as did his production. Kerley is best used as a slot receiver, and with a proven track record, he could take that spot away from Jones.
Andre Caldwell isn’t your typical slot receiver. At six-foot even, Caldwell is a little oversized for the shifty role. However, his route-running is top notch and even at 31-years-old, Caldwell can still be elusive. With the Broncos, Caldwell occasionally used his deceptive speed (ran a 4.37 40-yard dash way back in 2008 NFL Combine) in the slot and was pretty successful. Additionally, Caldwell has the capability of returning kickoffs.
Andre Roberts was a late addition in free agency. General manager Bob Quinn didn’t sign the six-year veteran until the middle of June. When entering the league as an Arizona Cardinal, Roberts mostly played as an outside receiver. However, after signing a free agency deal with Washington, he was moved to the slot and saw a slight dip in his production before a knee injury ended his 2015 season early. Roberts also brings kick and punt return experience to the table, but of this group, he seems the most unlikely to win the job.
Who is the front-runner?
The Lions still aren’t sure what they have in Jones, so at this point, Kerley has to be the leader going into camp. Detroit made it a pretty big priority to sign Kerley, signing him just two weeks into free agency. Although they didn’t make a huge financial investment in Kerley (one-year contract, $850,000 with $300,000-worth of performance incentives), he was clearly a top choice to contend with Jones. However, don’t sleep on Caldwell, either. He impressed a lot of media during OTAs this offseason and could be a real threat.