The Detroit Lions don’t have to make any big roster decisions for at least another four weeks. Thanks to a rule change, Detroit no longer has to cut the roster down to 75 before finalizing their 53-man roster. They can go from 90 to 53 in one fell swoop.
But just because we’re weeks from that cut day doesn’t mean we can’t start looking ahead at some daunting decisions.
Through eight days of camp, it has become apparent the Lions have a surplus of No. 4 receivers on their roster. TJ Jones, Jared Abbrederis, Jace Billingsley and Keshawn Martin have all shown enough to warrant a spot on an NFL roster, but none have established themselves as a solid No. 3.
That could leave the Lions in quite a conundrum. Last year, Bob Quinn decided Detroit only needed four receivers on their final roster. To compensate, the Lions carried three receivers on their practice squad (Billingsley, Jones and Isaac Fruechte).
But 2017 is a different year filled with different choices. With all of the talent on the wide receiver bubble, should the Lions consider keeping a fifth receiver? Let’s look at both sides of the argument.
Why the Lions should keep five receivers
If the Lions don’t keep at least five receivers around, they will almost certainly lose a talented receiver to an opposition’s active NFL roster. Though Billingsley, Jones and Abbrederis are all still practice squad eligible, most, if not all, all should garner enough interest to get claimed on waivers.
Remember that Abbrederis had offers to join teams in the middle of 2016, but reportedly turned them down. Jones finally seems to be coming into his own and with a little weight on his frame, he is finally competing for a spot on the offense. Billingsley is the most likely to pass through waivers unclaimed, but even he is becoming less and less expendable.
The 2016 Lions were lucky. They chose only to carry four receivers, and all four of them stayed healthy for the majority of the year. Between Marvin Jones Jr., Anquan Boldin and Golden Tate, the trio missed exactly one game combined.
The Lions may not be as lucky this year, so they’ll need some help behind the Jones-Tate-Golladay trio this year. And considering some of these players may not make it to the practice squad, the Lions should cover their bases by keeping an extra one on the 53.
No more fullback
The Lions have an extra space on the roster this year, having moved on from Michael Burton and the fullback position. Detroit may use that extra spot to keep a fourth tight end or a fifth running back, but it makes just as much sense to keep a fifth receiver for both of the reasons listed above.
Why the Lions should keep four receivers
They won’t use a fifth receiver
The Lions may have been lucky in terms of receiver health last year, but the fact remains that Detroit had no need for a fifth receiver on the roster. Had they used a spot on the roster for one, that player would have been inactive on gameday for just about every week of the season.
Last year when the Lions kept only four receivers, I explained that they don’t use a fourth receiver very often. Here was the distribution of snaps from 2015:
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
That turned out to be even more true in 2016. Look at the stats:
Marvin Jones Jr - 879 snaps - 84.8%
Golden Tate - 866 snaps - 83.5%
Anquan Boldin - 830 snaps - 80.0%
Andre Roberts - 258 snaps - 24.9%
TJ Jones - 52 snaps - 5.0%
There’s reason to believe the Lions will use a fourth receiver even less often than 2016, because...
The Lions may use a lot more 2 tight end sets in 2017
Though Eric Ebron remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, the additions of Darren Fells and Michael Roberts have opened up a set of brand new possibilities for the Lions offense. Specifically, the use a two-tight end sets on offense.
If the Lions remain healthy at the position, Detroit could, and should, use more formations with at least two tight ends in the game. Not only could the Lions benefit in the running game with more big guys on the field, but considering the kind of help they may need on the left side of the line, the more tight ends, the better.
With more tight ends means fewer three-wide formations, meaning virtually no chance of a fifth wide receiver to make a gameday impact.
With all of the talent at tight end, and their likely transition to more 2 tight end sets, it would make a lot of sense for Detroit to use that extra roster spot on a fourth tight end, not a fifth wide receiver.
They all offer the same special teams value
Billingsley, Abbrederis, Jones and Martin are all also competing for the return job for the Lions. While that’s a great way to work your way onto the roster, there’s really only room for one.
Because a fourth and fifth receiver won’t be expected to contribute much on offense, it’ll be their special teams value that makes them worthy of a roster spot. But keeping Billingsley and Jones, or Martin and Abbrederis is just redundant. When you throw in the fact that cornerback Jamal Agnew could win the job anyways, it just doesn’t make sense to keep a fifth receiver around for return abilities when they’ll already have at least two on the roster.
When building a roster, you want to keep your best 53 players on the team. However, that’s rarely possible. No roster is perfectly balanced at each position, and every year a team is forced to part ways with talent at one position while another position is lacking in skilled players.
While the Lions may not want to let go of some of their talent at wide receiver, they have to do it. Wasting a roster spot on someone who won’t play is not doing the team nor the player any favors.
Detroit could always opt for a trade before cut day comes. They did the exact same thing last year with Jeremy Kerley in 2016, sending him to the 49ers after the third preseason game. But don’t expect a lot in return. These teams know that if not traded, these players will likely hit the waiver wire anyways.
No matter what the Lions choose to do, it’s likely that a talented player will either go unused or will be playing under a different team in 2017.
How many receivers should the Lions keep in 2017?
This poll is closed