The Detroit Lions wide receiver depth chart has been a mystery since Calvin Johnson retired earlier in the offseason. As we pointed out on Saturday, not only is the talent an unknown, but the roles of each piece are blurred. Is Golden Tate more of a No. 1 receiver, or is he a slot receiver? Can Marvin Jones compete as a primary target, or is he strictly a secondary option? Where exactly do Jeremy Kerley and Andre Caldwell — two versatile players — fit into the team’s offensive plans. Hell, the Lions grabbed just about every veteran receiver they saw in free agency:
The #Lions have signed SIX veteran FA receivers this offseason.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) July 26, 2016
Also 3 UDFA
However, with the impending addition of Anquan Boldin, things become a little clearer for the Lions’ receiving core.
What Boldin brings to the table
Last year, the San Francisco 49ers used Boldin almost exclusively in the slot. He would typically run short-to-intermediate routes while having varying degrees of success. Quick outs or WR screens were not very effective, as Boldin lacks the agility and speed he once had to create separation early and add yards after the catch. In 2016, Boldin averaged just 4.2 YAC per reception, according to Sporting Charts, which was significantly less than Joique Bell (14.0), Ameer Abdullah (8.2), Theo Riddick (8.1), Golden Tate (6.1) and Eric Ebron (6.1). For a slot receiver, that’s just a poor number.
However, Boldin also brings aggressive and reliable hands. He isn’t afraid to attack the ball and when it’s a catchable pass, Boldin is usually coming down with it. Via Bleacher Report:
He had only four drops on 73 catchable balls in 2015, per PFF. That led to a drop rate of only 5.48, which ranked a solid 12th out of the 30 receivers who saw at least 50 percent of their team’s targets.
With sure hands and a huge build (6-foot-1, 220 pounds), Boldin can still excel in short curls and shallow crossing routes. Perhaps even more importantly, however, is Boldin’s value in the red zone. Though he only has nine touchdowns in his last two seasons combined, Boldin’s skillset perfectly fits the mold of a red zone monster. Jump ball skills? Check. Fade route? Check. Toe-tapping? Check. Out of all wideouts, Boldin finished 14th in red zone targets in 2015 with 19, 18th in receptions with 10, and tied with Demaryius Thomas for 33rd with 3 touchdown receptions per Pro-Football Reference.
Where he fits in Detroit
Boldin has experience on both the outside and the inside of an offense. However, with Marvin Jones expected to take outside duties, Boldin frees up versatile guys like Golden Tate to mix in outside formations with occasional slot appearances.
Boldin’s best fit on the Lions is essentially as another receiving tight end opposite Eric Ebron. Now the Lions could have the dual-tight end threat that the New England Patriots (and Bob Quinn) popularized. Boldin would come as a welcome addition as a "tight end" since the Lions don’t have a reliable healthy body outside of Ebron. However, Detroit would be smart not to give Boldin much of a blocking role. Despite Boldin’s physical nature of play and his ability to block, at 36-years-old, that might be too much of a risk.
Putting it all together
With Boldin aboard, the Lions suddenly have many weapons at their disposal and a lot of options when it comes to how they line up on offense. The Lions can go three-wide with either Boldin or Tate in the slot. The Lions could essentially have Tate and Jones as outside receivers while putting Ebron and Boldin as "slot" tight ends. Detroit could even go five-wide by throwing an additional slot receiver like Jeremy Kerley or TJ Jones into the mix.
Boldin won’t come in and put up Calvin Johnson-like numbers, nor should anyone expect him to. But his addition will help the players around him fit into tighter roles on the offense, allowing offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to utilize each to their fullest potential. In other words, he’s the final puzzle piece.