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Detroit Lions receiving corps will be better in 2017

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The Detroit Lions had a group of talented youngsters in 2016 training camp, but they’ve been almost completely replaced.

NFL: Detroit Lions-Minicamp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions top two receivers and top tight end, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron, combined for 2,718 yards in 2016. That WR/WR/TE combo netted the fourth-most yards in the NFL for any such combo, so getting yards from their starters wasn’t much of an issue. The problem with the Lions receiving group really came from everyone that lined up after that. Veteran Anquan Boldin offered some stability at the third receiver position, but he hasn’t returned for 2017 and the team as a whole has taken steps to replace almost everyone in their receiving corps outside of the top three. The question then becomes whether or not the group is improved coming into this season compared to the last one.

2016 Training Camp squad:

WR: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, T.J. Jones, Anquan Boldin, Jay Lee, Jeremy Kerley, Andre Caldwell, Andre Roberts, Corey Fuller, Quinshad Davis, Jace Billingsley, Ryan Spadola

TE: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Cole Wick, Matthew Mulligan, Adam Fuehne, Ben McCord, Orson Charles

Others: Isaac Fruechte, Khari Lee, Clay Harbor, Brian Leonhardt, Logan Thomas, Kennard Backman

Aside from the top three receivers, this receiving group looked really, really bad. That’s an opinion this writer caught some flak for here at POD, in large part due to some rose tinted views of the tight end group. As it was, the Lions only kept four receivers coming out of training camp and the fourth was a head scratcher at the time. Andre Roberts would go on to have a below average season for a fourth receiver, but came up with a single big catch in enough games to fool people into thinking he was a worthwhile keeper. The tight end group saw Eric Ebron take another step forward as a receiver but every single player who lined up at that position aside from Ebron probably shouldn’t have been in an NFL uniform in 2016. The dumpster fire that was the Lions tight end group only further highlighted Eric Ebron’s issues as a blocker, adding to the perception that he’s somehow a bad player and not the top ten tight end he was in 2016.

2017 Pre-Training Camp Squad:

Returning:

WR: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, T.J. Jones, Jace Billingsley, Ryan Spadola

TE: Eric Ebron, Cole Wick

New:

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Dontez Ford, Kenny Golladay, Keshawn Martin, Michael Rector, Noel Thomas

TE: Brandon Barnes, Darren Fells, Michael Roberts, Robert Tonyan

Losing Anquan Boldin is notable as that’s 95 targets the team is going to have to move around. The team added Kenny Golladay to pull in a chunk of those and the addition of Michael Roberts and Darren Fells means the team has actual options at the tight end position for targets (Clay Harbor and Cole Wick tied for second most targets in 2016 with only three each). The Lions only really retained their starting pair of Tate and Jones as well as their starting TE (only TE, really) Eric Ebron from 2016. Jace Billingsley, Ryan Spadola, and Cole Wick were all UDFA and two were rookies in 2016 (also important to note that both rookies were on the active roster in 2016).

The team added Kenny Golladay to play both outside and in, and he should replace a sizable chunk of Anquan Boldin’s lost targets. The returning Jace Billingsley, or one of the new acquisitions, ought to handily replace Andre Roberts’ lost 25 targets as well. The biggest improvements here are in the tight end group, where Darren Fells is an obvious upgrade over UDFA Cole Wick or Matthew Mulligan (who was atrocious as a blocker and managed only a single target). Michael Roberts may be the biggest steal of this class as his work in the red zone should prove invaluable to a team that desperately needs some targets down there.

Guesswork final 53:

WR: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Jace Billingsley

TE: Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, Michael Roberts, Cole Wick

Practice Squad: Michael Rector, Robert Tonyan

The team kept only seven pass catchers to start 2016, but I’m comfortable guessing they keep eight this season. The biggest catch here would be that they hold onto a fourth tight end rather than a fifth receiver. For the receivers, I think that once again T.J. Jones doesn’t live up to his oft-received camp hype and that Jared Abbrederis’ star fades a bit as the season start nears. The fourth receiver in the Lions offense won’t be getting a lot of work, even less than the 25 targets Andre Roberts received in 2016, so I went with a player who can bring some more YAC to the offense.

I don’t think it’s controversial to state that Eric Ebron isn’t a great blocker. What is sad, but no more controversial, is that he was the best blocker the Lions had from their tight ends in 2016. That won’t be the case in 2017 with Darren Fells and Michael Roberts in town. I believe the Lions are shifting their offense a bit this season, judging by statements about how they’re practicing and who they’ve acquired, so I went with a fourth tight end. In this scenario, it was Cole Wick as the fourth man. The team liked Wick enough to keep him around in 2016 and I don’t see this year’s undrafted free agents (one of which is a converted receiver) unseating Wick. It’s possible another free agent signing could come in and compete for that fourth spot.

Did the unit improve?

Losing Anquan Boldin puts a dent in the receiving corps, but the group as a whole is still better coming into 2017 even before considering the tight ends. The improvements along the offensive line mean the team isn’t going to be limited solely to short passes, a big reason Marvin Jones saw a dropoff in production after the first few games last season. An improved Marvin Jones along with adding Kenny Golladay outside and moving Golden Tate to his dangerous slot position is a better and more versatile primary set of receivers than the team came into 2016 with. It’s hard to not see an upgrade over Andre Roberts, but it’s also difficult to imagine a fourth receiver who couldn’t manage more than 1.5 targets a game, which would be a significant improvement from that position.

And then there’s tight end. As bad as the Lions linebackers were in 2016, tight end was even worse with only seven targets combined between all tight ends not named Ebron and no touchdowns. As bad as Ebron’s blocking was, he was comfortably the best blocker of the bunch and that is just as sad as it sounds. The team needed to improve the position desperately. It did so by adding Darren Fells, one of the best pass blocking tight ends in the NFL, and Michael Roberts, one of the best red zone options in this draft class. As bad as the 2016 group looked coming into the season, a group led by the ascending Eric Ebron with a strong blocking option (so Ebron doesn’t have to do it) and red zone target puts this unit in an area that begins at serviceable and ends at very good. The Detroit Lions receiving group, including tight ends, improved even after losing a future hall of famer in Anquan Boldin and, if successful, will be an impressive notch in Bob Quinn’s GM belt.

Poll

Did the Lions receiving and tight end corps improve over 2016?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    This could be a top 5 unit in 2017.
    (278 votes)
  • 48%
    They might be better, but not significantly so.
    (348 votes)
  • 5%
    It’s basically the same, for better or worse.
    (42 votes)
  • 4%
    Losing Boldin hurts too much to call it improved.
    (35 votes)
  • 1%
    If this unit climbs out of the bottom 10, I’ll be surprised.
    (10 votes)
713 votes total Vote Now