With just around $32.8 million in cap space before handling their in-house free agents, the Lions have room to make moves. How many moves they make, however, depends on what needs the team will prioritize after free agency kicks off in two weeks time.
Detroit could potentially be in need of a new starting guard, right tackle and wide receiver. Whereas the former two positions could be solved by re-signing Larry Warford and Riley Reiff, the latter seems to hinge on a very different and unique set of circumstances.
Anquan Boldin was a vital part of the team’s success on offense. He was the team’s most targeted receiver in the red zone, and arguably their most reliable pass catcher when the team needed a completion. Another season of football might not be in the 14-year veteran’s future, though, and that means Detroit could be in search of a replacement.
2012: 15 games - 104 targets, 64 receptions, 626 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns
2013: 16 games - 139 targets, 94 receptions, 1,079 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
2014: 14 games - 93 targets, 57 receptions, 715 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
2015: 10 games - 60 targets, 36 receptions, 408 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
2016: 11 games - 42 targets, 29 receptions, 416 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
Should Boldin retire, the Lions depth at wide receiver is either halfway out the door or too inexperienced to fulfill Boldin’s 2016 role. Andre Roberts is an unrestricted free agent, TJ Jones is likely to return to camp as an exclusive rights free agent, Jared Abbrederis was signed as a flyer and Jace Billingsley, even though his time is coming, has no experience.
Detroit and Kendall Wright makes sense in case Boldin makes that decision to not return.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell brought some credence to this match earlier this month:
Wright isn't a big name, but as a third wideout in an offense that loves to go three-wide and throw short passes, Wright's agility makes him a solid fit. He caught 94 passes in 2013 and looked to be on the verge of a Jarvis Landry-style career, but Wright fell out of favor in Tennessee and eventually landed in a scheme that didn't play to his strengths under Mike Mularkey. The Titans ran three-WR formations a league-low 422 times in 2016, while the Lions had the NFL's fourth-highest mark (732 snaps). Wright won't have the blocking ability of Anquan Boldin, but he should be a more dynamic receiver with upside.
Barnwell’s stat digging reveals something more important than just the possible fit Wright would be in Detroit: The Lions go three-wide a lot. Jones and Tate lined up 879 and 866 times respectively, but Boldin’s 830 snaps would be something significant to replace.
Why he’s the Wright fit
I couldn’t help myself.
As mentioned by Barnwell, Wright isn’t the physical blocker Boldin is—in fact, he’s not much of a blocker at all, 67 of his 308 snaps last season were on run plays—but he’s as effective a slot receiver as the Lions could land in free agency. Options like Victor Cruz and DeSean Jackson will garner much more attention and interest because of their names, but would probably be out of Detroit's budget—more so in the case of Jackson.
In Wright, the Lions could nab a former first-round pick that simply fell out of favor in Tennessee when there was a coaching change. Wright’s most productive season, the 2013 season where he totaled 94 receptions and 1,079 receiving yards, was impressive, but situated behind those numbers is a part of Wright’s game that meshes really well with the Lions offensive scheme: his ability to make plays happen after the catch. In 2013, Wright’s 596 yards after the catch placed him eighth among all players.
In 2014, Wright’s most productive season from a scoring standpoint, his eight red zone targets resulted in 5 receptions—all of them good for touchdowns. His shiftiness and burst make him a dangerous target all over the field, but in Detroit, Wright would find a red zone role where Boldin thrived in 2016 and Wright has shown the ability to be productive in the past.
His hands are another reliable aspect of his game and would serve him well as the team's slot receiver. He's dropped only 16 passes through his five NFL seasons and never posted a drop rate above five percent in a season. Now, five percent isn’t the highest benchmark to set, but keep in mind that his time in Tennessee overlapped with the likes of Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Zach Mettenberger and Charlie Whitehurst, none of which are exactly the benchmark for throwing accuracy either.
Why it just ain’t Wright
Last time, I promise.
As mentioned earlier, Detroit has cap space, and they have plenty of areas to upgrade before they address the wide receiver position. Eric Ebron is as pseudo a wide receiver as a tight end can be, and if the team decides to prioritize acquiring a more in-line traditional tight end, Ebron could be utilized in a similar way as to how Boldin was in 2016, thus alleviating the need to find an immediate replacement for Boldin’s snaps and targets.
After signing Marvin Jones to a five year, $40 million deal, Lions GM Bob Quinn may be less inclined to invest in upgrading a position he did so a year ago at this time. And that would be fine, so long as they have a contingency plan--whether that be the aforementioned idea or maybe using draft capital to bring in a young, cost-controlled option.
If Boldin splits to enjoy the retired life—which, at this point, how could you blame him if he did?—Wright seems like a sensible option for Detroit to pursue in free agency.
At 27, Wright is still young, and his skill set fits nicely for the role Detroit would want him to fill. According to Spotrac.com, Wright’s market value is somewhere around $7.1 million per year, but I’m not sure his price tag will be much more expensive than that. Big names I mentioned earlier like Cruz and Jackson could earn sizable contracts, but other options like Kamar Aiken and Kenny Stills seem to fit the profile of receivers Wright will be lumped into and thus receive similar compensation.
A lot of dominoes must fall into place, and it's dependent upon a unique set of circumstances with Boldin’s future up in the air, but should those circumstances become a reality, the Lions will need to shore up their depth at receiver; Kendall Wright would make for a sure upgrade over the depth beyond Boldin, and at 27 years old, he could solidify the slot position for the foreseeable future.
And, come on, he’s got all the Wright moves.