The Detroit Lions shocked the NFL when they dealt veteran receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday. Detroit lost one of the most productive receivers the NFL has seen in recent memory in the deal and finding a replacement for him may not be easy.
Tate had caught over 90 passes in each of his previous four seasons in the Motor City and was on pace to comfortably reach the mark again in 2018. The loss of the team’s most productive receiver creates a huge vacuum in the offense that someone will have to fill.
“The biggest thing for me is just moving forward with what we got,” said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford when asked about what the plan is going forward after the trade.
Stafford has not had to play a game without his trusted slot receiver since Tate arrived in 2014. Every year Tate was in Detroit he accounted for around one-fourth of the Stafford’s total targets. Now the quarterback will have to find a way to distribute those targets elsewhere.
“I got a bunch of confidence in those guys, and everyone in our locker room has a bunch of confidence in those guys,” Stafford said of the remaining receivers.
One obvious replacement for Tate already in the locker room is wide receiver TJ Jones. The receiver was selected in the sixth round by the Lions in 2014 and has been bouncing back and forth between the fringes of the roster and having a real role in the offense. 2017 was his best year to date—catching 30 passes for 49 targets—but his role has been marginalized this season with the emergence of Kenny Golladay.
Nearly halfway through the season, Jones has only been targeted by Stafford six times. He has caught three of those targets for 36 yards. Stafford thinks those numbers will be much higher in the second half of the season.
“TJ is a savvy guy. He has got a lot of great feel. He’s a smart guy. He’s a good blocker,” Stafford said of his receiver, “[He] does everything you’d want.”
“He and [Brandon Powell] give us a really good element inside,” he added.
Rookie undrafted free agent Brandon Powell is another option for the Lions to replace Tate in the slot. The former Florida Gator was active for the first time in his NFL career last week against the Seahawks. While he did not catch a pass, it does show the coach’s increasing trust in the preseason standout.
Both Jones and Powell have skill sets that make them ideal slot receivers. Neither are anywhere near the caliber of player Tate is, though, and it is hard to imagine that even their combined efforts will be enough to fully replace his production.
Stafford realizes this, saying “I think everybody” is responsible for replacing Tate. “I don’t think it’s one man’s job to step in,” the quarterback added.
This is not the first time Stafford has had to make up for the loss of his favorite target. In 2015, Calvin Johnson, arguably the most productive receiver in NFL history, retired suddenly at the age of 30. The receiver was still very much in his prime as he eclipsed 1,200 receiving yards in his final season. A combination of Tate, Jones, Marvin Jones Jr. and Anquan Boldin were responsible for making up the production at the time. Stafford does not think it will be any different this time around.
“Losing Calvin, it wasn’t one person’s job to come in here and try and duplicate what he does,” Stafford said. “It’s just on everybody.”
Detroit does not have much time to figure out how keep the offense afloat sans Tate. They play a pivotal match up against the Minnesota Vikings this week. At 3-4, another loss this early will put their season on life support.
The quarterback is still confident going forward, though.
“I still think we can be very successful in what we want to do.”