Wide receiver is a position the Detroit Lions have invested heavily in this offseason. They scouted at least 36 players in the draft but didn’t pick any. Several of their UDFA signings were receivers (there are currently three on the roster) and one of those, Quinshad Davis, received a signing bonus. On top of that, Anquan Boldin makes it six free agents the team has brought in to compete at the position. That’s a lot of pieces to move around, but even more so it brings into question who is going to actually make the final roster and what kid of a role they will have.
The easiest of the bunch, Tate is going to keep his previous role under Jim Bob Cooter and Jim Caldwell. That means he’s going to be the complimentary No. 2 receiver, or 1B on days the coverage demands it. His ability to gain yards after the catch while missing tackles sets him apart from the rest of this squad, and it’s something that we are undoubtedly going to see a ton of this season.
Signed to be the 1A receiver in Detroit, Marvin Jones had some productive seasons when he was healthy in Cincinnati. He likely would have been even more productive had there not been an A.J. Green there, or a Tyler Eifert to take targets. Still, his role will be similar to Golden Tate in that, depending on the coverage, he is either going to be the primary target or the secondary one. Jones is exceptional at going over the top for passes and it’s likely the red zone offense is going to see some packaged Marvin Jones plays where he can body out a receiver in the end zone. His above average speed and top tier ball tracking ability also mean he will be running some vertical routes if the team can keep protections together.
The former star of the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens found himself largely relegated to the "Big Slot Receiver" role in 2015 for the 49ers. It’s possible, but unlikely he returns to that role full time in Detroit. More likely the team will be looking to emulate some two tight end packages using Boldin as that inside physical threat opposite Eric Ebron. I’ve been running through some plays that the team ran last year with Tim Wright, and I can’t help but see more success with someone like Boldin. He may get some outside work with Golden Tate swinging inside, but he is noticeably slower these days and it’s tough to see that as a full-time gig.
I’ve been getting a lot of guff for saying that TJ Jones’ roster spot isn’t secure, but I want to make sure you all know that isn’t because I feel he’ll fall off the roster, only that it’s possible. Jones is an inside/outside receiver capable of moving around the formation. He has sporadic special teams ability but a good knowledge of the scheme that gives him a leg up. Jones could end up subbing for any of the three named before for a play or two during drives, but I doubt you’re going to see a lot of packaged plays for him that won’t look like they were designed for Golden Tate.
Once a rising star in Arizona, this journeyman from the Redskins saw his production nosedive under a Kirk Cousins led offense. I’m not blaming Cousins, Roberts deserves his fair share of criticism, but it was pretty clear he didn’t fit what they were trying to do. Another inside/outside receiver who will find most of his work out of the slot, Roberts will also be given a shot on special teams to unseat TJ Jones. Roberts didn’t play ST in 2015, but was very good as a kick returner prior to that and should make for some good competition.
A few short months ago, we were talking about Jeremy Kerley as if he was the de facto slot receiver for the Detroit Lions. Several of these signings along with the alleged rise of TJ Jones has seen that luster wear off, and it’s very possible Kerley doesn’t even make the roster. He has special teams experience, but his most well-known trait as a teamer was leading the NFL in fair catches, so I’m not sure how much levity that buys.
Fuller benefits from being placed on the PUP list more than anyone I can name in recent memory. He would have been a long shot to make the roster in this crowded field, especially considering how he has folded under pressure before. The PUP list carries with it only a single benefit, and that is the team carrying you onto the final roster without using up a roster spot. This means that if Fuller isn’t healed enough to compete by the time the preseason ends, he’ll likely be on the sidelines as a Detroit Lion in 2016. Funny how that works out.
The former Broncos and Bengals receiver is -- see if you can catch the trend -- another inside/outside receiver who can move around a formation. Caldwell peaked in 2011, but hasn’t been hanging around the league just because he shares a last name with a famous NFL coach. He has good skills as a fourth or fifth receiver and is a passable kick returner to boot.
Damian Copeland is currently wearing the #3 jersey, worn by former reserve kicker Havard Rugland. That should give you an idea of where his present chances lie, but it wouldn't be the entire story. Copeland is a fairly athletic receiver with decent size, but injuries have been telling his NFL story for him since joining the league. Who knows what he can do if healthy?
Spadola is a one-speed type who hasn’t found a way to stick in the NFL yet. He has some special teams ability, which is probably where his best shot to make the Detroit Lions roster will be in this crowded group. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot about him that really wowed me, so it would take a spectacular preseason and camp effort to make this roster, even if they carry six receivers.
The former Tar Heel is a good sized receiver with no real standout athletic traits. I scouted him pretty heavily pre-draft, and I was surprised when the Detroit Lions decided to sign him with a bonus as a UDFA. His ability in the red zone ought to be a major strength considering his size, but it didn’t stick out to me when compared to other receivers in this class. Still, signing someone like Anquan Boldin and then sticking him with a similar player can only do good things, and Davis’ chances improve every moment he spends with the former superstar.
A fan favorite from the start, Jay Lee is a somewhat limited receiver from a route and usage standpoint that may still stick with the Detroit Lions since they kind of need someone with those skills. Even after signing Boldin, they don’t really have anybody that can take the top off of a defense consistently and Lee may be able to bring that. I say may because there is a reason he was undrafted, and I am not as high on the former Baylor Bear than many are. A similar player to Corey Fuller, Lee will have to find a role bringing vertical threats to the offense while coming up to speed very fast on special teams. Like Quinshad Davis, it’s more likely we see Lee on the practice squad than the active roster and is almost a certainty after Boldin signed.
The winner of our 2016 Pride Of Detroit Name Bracket Challenge, Jace Billingsley has a lot of heart and an intense following from his home town. A multi-faceted athlete who has a shot to stick based on gimmick usage, Billingsley has the longest of long shots to be a Detroit Lion in 2016. I wouldn't count him out, but it would take an excellent camp to get him reps in the preseason (the last couple receivers rarely see more than 2 or 3 targets in 4 games). Billingsley will have to make plays on any of the targets he sees and make some spectacular special teams impact to make this final roster. Just because it isn’t likely doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Signing Anquan Boldin doesn’t immediately knock anyone off of the roster, but it does make the path to the final 53 more difficult for several players. Jeremy Kerley is going to be the most impacted since there isn’t anything he does (except fair catch) that he does better than Boldin. The long shot players aren’t really affected much since their chances were already slim, but Quinshad Davis is the player I can see on the roster benefiting the most from Boldin’s signing.
Another underrated aspect of signing Boldin is his impact on the tight end corps. He probably won’t be taking many targets from Ebron (due to usage, not skill), but since the Lions don’t really have anyone on the roster to catch footballs at tight end after Ebron, there are plenty of targets that can be played with. Throwing ideas around, there are a ton of options in a Jim Bob Cooter offense utilizing a corps of Tate, Jones, Boldin, and Ebron and I’m excited to see what that looks like.