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Why keeping four receivers isn’t a huge risk for the Detroit Lions

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The biggest surprise from the roster cuts came at the wide receiver position.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions’ roster cuts on Saturday came with a lot of surprises. Adairius Barnes — an undrafted, under-the-radar rookie — beat out the likes of Darrin Walls and Alex Carter for a roster spot. The Lions ended up keeping 11 defensive linemen, but did not include last year’s fourth-round pick Gabe Wright in that group.

However, the biggest shocker was at the wide receiver position. Detroit decided to go with just four receivers on the 53-man roster, cutting — most surprisingly — TJ Jones along the way. Since at least 2009, the Lions have kept at least five receivers on the roster, choosing to keep six on the team in 2011 and 2013. This decision has left them with a shortage of pass catchers unlike any other team in the NFL right now:

Why would the Lions take this strange risk? Detroit currently has a surplus of defensive linemen, so why not cut the weak link in the chain there so that the Lions have insurance in case a receiver goes down? Here are a few possibilities.

The Lions plan on promoting from the practice squad whenever necessary

The Detroit Lions currently have three receivers on their practice squad: Jace Billingsley, TJ Jones and Isaac Fruechte (Fruechte’s addition has yet to be confirmed by the team). Detroit doesn’t even have three defensive players on the squad, so they clearly know they may need the help at receiver.

Jones was expected to make the final roster, but the Lions were able to bring him back anyways. Jones provides immediate insurance, having spent two years with the team already and also adds special teams value. Billingsley and Fruechte are more developmental projects, so the Lions would only likely promote them to the active squad if in a serious pinch.

This is still a risky proposition, because it doesn’t give the Lions much of an in-game option if injuries happen... Unless...

The Lions’ four receivers are extremely versatile

If the Detroit Lions suffer an injury at the wide receiver position, they can really shuffle around the roles of the receivers seamlessly. Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate and Andre Roberts all have experience playing in an inside, slot role or on the outside. Not only that, but if the Lions decide to use a receiver as a kick or punt returner, Detroit has two options in Golden Tate and Andre Roberts.

Although I’m sure Detroit would rather have their players defined in specific roles (Boldin in the slot, Tate and Marvin Jones on the outside), the versatility of the group both allows them to mix up formations and plug-and-play in emergency situations.

Don’t forget the other receiving options

I’ve heard some fans complain that without a fifth receiver, the Lions will never be able to go in a five-wide formation. That simply is not true. Eric Ebron, who looks like he’ll be ready to return for the regular season opener, is expected to be a huge part of this offense. This four-receiver decision could be a sign that Ebron is ready to go.

It could also be a sign that the Lions are changing the role of running back Theo Riddick. Riddick caught 80 passes last year, but mostly out of the backfield. Although that’s where he’s most dangerous as a receiver, the Lions may be planning on using him more as a slot receiver this year.

The Lions realized they don’t use a fourth receiver very often

Last year, Detroit rarely even used a fourth receiver, let alone a fifth. The Lions’ fourth leading receiver in 2015 was TJ Jones, who caught just 10 passes all year. It wasn’t that Jones was inefficient last year; the Lions just rarely chose to use him at all. Here is the snap distribution of Lions receivers from 2015 (via MLive.com)

Calvin Johnson - 1001 snaps - 92.8 percent
Golden Tate - 925 snaps - 85.7 percent
Lance Moore - 577 snaps - 53.5 percent
Corey Fuller - 169 snaps - 15.7 percent
TJ Jones - 159 snaps - 14.7 percent

Although the Lions were in 3+ wide receiver formations 72 percent of the time (eighth-most), according to Football Outsider’s 2016 almanac, they clearly relied heavily on non-receivers in the passing game when spread out. Theo Riddick, Eric Ebron, Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah all individually had more receptions and receiving yards than Fuller and Jones combined. Which leads me to the most important point:

The Lions only had four receivers active on game day for nearly all of 2015

In 2015, the Lions had five receivers on the active 46-man game day roster just four times, typically opting to keep just four. After Jim Bob Cooter took over offensive coordinator duties in Week 8, the Lions kept just four receivers active in every single game. Not once did the Lions go into game day with five active receivers.

In other words, this isn’t really much of a risk at all for Detroit. The Lions will face the same in-game injury risk this year that they did for 12 out of 16 games last season, including all games under Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. If the Lions are worried about a player not dressing for a game because of an injury, they can simply call up TJ Jones from the practice squad and be in the same position they were for nearly all of last year.

So while on the surface keeping four receivers on the 53-man roster looks risky, it really isn’t. It’s an out-of-the-box move from general manager Bob Quinn, but it makes a lot of sense with the personnel they have.