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2017 Detroit Lions offseason needs: Wide receiver strong at the top but shallow

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The joke has always been that the Detroit Lions will take a receiver in the first round, but it has been rightly a need the past couple of seasons. Does that still remain the case coming into 2017?

Wild Card Round - Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In 2014, the Detroit Lions started to see the signs of Calvin Johnson slowing down. The year prior he posted nearly 1,500 yards and 12 TDs, but injuries were taking their toll and everyone knew it. It became chic to mock a receiver to the Detroit Lions and despite having Golden Tate, who immediately posted boss numbers, and then Marvin Jones in 2015, it remains trendy to point a receiver at the Lions. Oddly, it often involves trading one of their present, productive receivers. Still, receiver is one of the Detroit Lions worst positions on offense coming into 2017 due to a complete lack of depth. The drop off after the top two players is stunning, and with a contract fading for Golden Tate (2018), the team may need to start preparing for the future.

Under Contract 2017: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Jace Billingsley, Andrew Turzilli, Ryan Spadola, Jared Abbrederis

Pending Free Agents: Anquan Boldin, Andre Roberts, TJ Jones (ERFA), Rashad Ross

Golden Tate had a rough start to 2016, but when the Lions offense shifted to his strengths and he got his head straight, he took off, leading the team in targets, receptions and yards. Marvin Jones started off red hot, leading the NFL in yards for several weeks before the Lions offense cut out many of its deep passing options and his play dropped sharply. He still finished the season with 55 catches for 930 yards and 4 TDs. After that, you have Jace Billingsley (a favorite here, but never played a down), practice squad players Ryan Spadola and Andrew Turzilli, and former Packer Jared Abbrederis. Anquan Boldin is likely headed to the Hall of Fame before he plays for the Lions again, while returner Andre Roberts is also probably gone. TJ Jones saw limited action late in the season and is a rare ERFA that may not see a tender offer, while practice squadder Rashad Ross wasn’t even given a futures contract.

Free Agents Available

Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Kenny Britt, Anquan Boldin, Kamar Aiken, Kendall Wright, Andre Holmes, Terrelle Pryor, Robert Woods, and more

The free agent class is loaded with talent, but the potential cost is all over the place. Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor are both headed to big pay days, while DeSean Jackson and Kenny Britt are trying to hold on for one of their last contracts. Andre Holmes and Robert Woods are both role players, but the most interesting players here are probably both unheralded. Kamar Aiken was a RFA target last season before ultimately returning to the Ravens, but he could fill a similar role in Detroit as the departing Anquan Boldin. Kendall Wright never lived up to his first-round billing, but with the Lions embracing the short passing game all game, every game it offers an opportunity he could find appealing.

Draft Targets

Corey Davis, Mike Williams, JuJu Smith-Schuster, John Ross, Isaiah Ford, Amarah Darboh, K.D. Cannon

If the Detroit Lions pass on the top two receivers in Corey Davis and Mike Williams—or the more likely scenario in which they’re unable to grab either of them— the rest of this class is relatively unappealing at the top. John Ross is a lesser DeSean Jackson as a prospect while JuJu Smith-Schuster’s biggest draw is that he’s incredibly young. A bit later in the draft, however, it starts to get a little more interesting. Guys like local product Amarah Darboh or Baylor’s K.D. Cannon could offer some mid-to-late round playmakers in their very different roles. Like the Lions roster itself, this draft is better at the top than it is for depth and with how strong the tight end class is (coming up next), it is more likely they address their receiving needs through that position than through receiver.

Level of Need

It’s a middling need. Many of the concerns about this receiver group is that they dropped too many passes, which is true, and that they didn’t cause much separation, which is also true. What many fail to note, however, is that there are extenuating circumstances around both of those things. Take Marvin Jones, for example. After the team stopped using the hurry up offense, they took it to the other extreme and slowed the offense to a crawl. A byproduct of this means no more deep shots, and that hurts Marvin Jones’ value since that’s his best role. Later in the year, Jim Bob Cooter’s inexperience really began to show since he barely featured Marvin Jones, and often had him running the same routes over and over. When you run the same routes over and over, it gives the impression that a player cannot separate because the corner always has positioning. If you know which route a receiver is going to run, it’s much easier to gain positioning. That’s also why some of the best plays for Jones to end the year were on back shoulder throws or other routes, since those types of plays take defenders by surprise when they know to cover a player one way. The team certainly needs some receivers, but with so many other needs and a more than competent starting pair, it’s more likely they address their other needs and fill the receiving corps with replacement level talent, hoping they can find that diamond in the rough among their signees or practice squad call ups. Jace Billingsley, your time is now!

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