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Lions camp battles: Who won the No. 5 wide receiver position?

After Thursday’s preseason game, what the heck are the Lions going to do with their receivers?

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The final preseason game is usually a bore. By the second half, fans and media alike are usually desperately pleading for the regular season to come. However, thanks in part to Jace Billingsley and Jay Lee, the Detroit Lions’ preseason finale was a pleasure to watch. Both receivers put on a show as the Lions rolled to a 31-0 shutout win over the Buffalo Bills.

But their impressive performances bring roster implications. The Lions have their top four receivers locked up — Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin and TJ Jones. None of them played on Thursday, making it pretty clear they’re safe. But that fifth spot may still be up for grabs, and Billingsley and Lee made that an incredibly tough call. Let’s take a closer look at the position battle.

The candidates:

Jace Billingsley

Game 1: 3 catches, 33 yards, 1 TD; 3 punt returns, 41 yards
Game 2: 2 catches, 33 yards; 1 kick return, 25 yards
Game 3: 0 catches; 1 kick return, 40 yards; 1 punt return, 1 yard
Game 4: 7 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD; 1 kick return, 25 yards; 3 punt returns, 12 yards
Total: 12 catches, 146 yards, 2 TDs; 3 kick returns (30.0 YPR); 7 punt returns (7.7 YPR)

Jay Lee

Game 1: 0 catches
Game 2: 2 catches, 15 yards
Game 3: 1 catch, 1 yard
Game 4: 6 catches, 78 yards, 1 TD
Total: 9 catches, 94 yards, 1 TD

Andre Roberts

Game 1: 5 catches, 57 yards, 1 TD; 2 kick returns, 36 yards; 2 punt returns 0 yards
Game 2: 2 catches, 12 yards; 1 kick return, 27 yards; 2 punt returns 15 yards
Game 3: 1 catch, 14 yards; 1 kick return, 21 yards
Game 4: 0 catches
Total: 8 catches, 83 yards, 1 TD; 4 kick returns (21.0 YPR); 4 punt returns (3.8 YPR)

Jace Billingsley vs. Jay Lee

Let’s put Andre Roberts aside for a minute, since he barely showed up in the finale. The competition between Billingsley and Lee is fascinating to me. Billingsley had a more complete preseason, while Lee barely appeared on the scoresheet before blowing up against the Bills. Lee was much more impressive in the first half against better competition, while Billingsley didn’t show up until the second half. Finally, Billingsley has an extra advantage of showing some talent returning punts and kicks.

But what this matchup really comes down to is what the Lions want in their fifth receiver. Each receiver brings very different skills. Lee is more of a tall, deep threat that can outjump a corner to grab a jump ball. We saw this when Lee grabbed his only touchdown of the preseason, on a well-thrown fade route. Billingsley, on the other hand, is a quick, shifty slot-type who excels at yards after the catch. His 47-yard gain against the Bills displayed those traits perfectly.

Lee has the more rare skill set, but Billingsley fits the Lions’ scheme a little better. The choice is tough.

But what about Andre Roberts?

I eventually ended up choosing Roberts over both Lee and Billingsley in my final 53-man roster prediction. My reasoning is two-fold. First, the Lions barely played Roberts on Thursday (just 30 percent of the snaps, as compared to 56 percent for Billingsley and 96 percent for Lee). To me, that either indicates he’s no longer part of the competition or that the Lions are protecting him from injury. I don’t understand why the Lions wouldn’t give him a fair shot in the finale, so I’m going to assume the former.

Additionally, Roberts is essentially a hybrid of Billingsley and Lee. Roberts can play the slot position, if necessary, but he can also slide to the outside. Though he wasn’t as explosive as Billingsley on special teams, he also brings that to the table. Remember, the fifth wide receiver position is barely going to get any playing time at all. So why not choose the most versatile option? With Billingsley and Lee both practice squad eligible, chances are pretty good the Lions will get one, if not both, of them back. Roberts may not be the sexy roster choice after Thursday’s game, but he’s the safest and most logical.

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