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The Case for Jace: Why the Lions should bring back Billingsley

The Lions are suddenly thin at wide receiver; is Jace Billingsley an option?

NFL: New England Patriots at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Detroit Lions traded away Golden Tate, they knew that they were losing a premier slot option and a significant safety net for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Since the trade deadline deal, the Lions have lost three-of-four games, and if it weren’t for more kicking calamities from opposing teams, they could have made it four-for-four. The offense has been stagnant.

Now with receiver Marvin Jones Jr. being placed on the injured reserve, the once-elite receiving corps of Tate, Jones, and Kenny Golladay is a receiving corpse composed of Golladay and a myriad of underwhelming alternatives. The likes of Bruce Ellington, Brandon Powell, TJ Jones, Andy Jones, and Chris Lacy are neither names to inspire confidence in an offense, nor fear into a defense. The Lions have been utilizing running back Theo Riddick in the slot, but his best position is as a mismatch weapon against linebackers.

Enter Jace Billingsley.

Now, bear with me. Stop typing your comment that Billingsley isn’t a solution to the receiving woes either—I agree with you. He isn’t going to rack up 150 yards and multiple touchdowns. He isn’t that kind of player. What I will debate, however, is that he is an adequate slot option for the Lions, and one that the Lions should consider re-signing.

Note: From henceforth, I will refer to the Joneses (Joness? Jonesi?) by their first names.

Bruce Ellington is a fine slot receiver... when healthy

The acquisition of Bruce Ellington was one that I was quite happy with. With regards to other available options at slot receiver, Ellington was one of the better ones. He is no Golden Tate when it comes to yards after catch—very few receivers are—but he still provides a decent tertiary option.

However, injuries have been a significant concern for Ellington.

In Week 14 of his 2014 rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers, Ellington suffered a hamstring injury. The following season, he would suffer leg and ankle injuries. 2016 would fare even worse, as he would injure his ankle during training camp. Then, tearing his hamstring during the preseason, resulting in a trip to the injured reserve.

His 2017 campaign with the Houston Texans was more of the same: a concussion in Week 1, then an injured hamstring in Week 13 resulted in an IR placement. The 2018 season started like the others with another IR-inducing hamstring injury. However, he would be waived by the Texans, and was eventually picked up by the Lions. Even now, the injury bug has sneaked up on Ellington: he is currently nursing a back injury, though he has played through it.

Outside of Ellington, the only slot option currently with the Lions is Brandon Powell.

Brandon Powell probably isn’t athletic enough

For most positions, there is a strong correlation between a player’s athleticism and their career success. We can use Kent Lee Platte’s (@MathBomb) Relative Athletic Scores to help us understand the athleticism of wide receivers. For comparison, let’s look at the Lions’ previous slot receiver, Golden Tate, their current slot receiver, Bruce Ellington, and two of the league’s best slot receivers, Adam Thielen and Doug Baldwin:

All four have elite (above 8.00) or near-elite scores. There’s no definitive ideal trait to make-or-break a slot receiver, but most successful slot receivers excel in at least two of the following fields: speed (40-yard dash), explosiveness (vertical leap and broad jump), or agility (shuttle and 3 cone).

Let’s look at the scores of Billingsley and Powell:

While Billingsley posts a score that nearly matches Tate, Thielen, and Baldwin, Powell’s score is well below average. His only redeeming trait is agility. However, without good speed or explosiveness, he will have trouble establishing separation from defenders.

There have been exceptions to the norm, however:

Wes Welker emerged as a go-to weapon for the New England Patriots, en route to five Pro Bowls. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry has been a consistent threat for the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. However, there are some caveats to these players. The argument against Welker is that he was a by-product of the brilliant scheming of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, as evident by growth of previous unknown players like Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman into good or great receivers. You could also argue that this is good scouting by the Patriots—there is no correct answer to this debate, only speculation.

Landry, meanwhile, is an abnormality:

It baffles the minds of Kent and myself that Landry has had this level of success. It’s bonkers. Players with that kind of athleticism essentially never achieve NFL success. Powell boasts a score that’s excellent in comparison, but that doesn’t mean that he will succeed.

Billingsley is better after the catch than Powell

The Lions are a team that are desperate for YAC yards due to their current offense emphasizing short passing. It worked with Tate, but it is less effective with Ellington and Riddick. Billingsley has experience with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, though it remains to be seen how long the offensive coordinator will last with the Lions. There is a small sample size, with Powell only being a rookie and both players primarily getting action in the preseason, but Billingsley has been able to do more with the ball than Powell.

Powell was tied for the most preseason receptions with 16. However, those catches only amounted to 103 yards, good for only 50th-most in the preseason. Billingsley, on the other hand, had eight catches for 61 yards, an average of 7.6 yards per catch compared to Powell’s 6.4. Going back further, Billingsley recorded averages of 10.6 yds/catch and 12.2 yds/catch in 2017 and 2016, respectively.

The biggest reason for the low 2018 numbers is the quarterbacks. Billingsley and Powell were catching passes from Matt Cassel and Jake Rudock, both of whom struggled with deep passes. As a result, you have to take Billingsley’s 2016 and 2017 numbers with a grain of salt, given that the Lions offense during the 2018 preseason looked bewildered.

Looking at YAC, Billingsley recorded an average of 4.0 yards after the catch, while Powell averaged 2.6. For comparison, Tate currently has an average of 6.4 for the season. In previous preseasons, Billingsley recorded averages of 6.3 YAC/catch in 2017 and 8.7 YAC/catch in 2016. Once more, quarterbacks likely impacted these numbers, but to a lesser extent than number of catches or yardage.

The Lions’ other receivers are not slot receivers

With the injury to Marvin, either TJ or Andy will need to step up as the Lions’ Jones1. Meanwhile, Lacy is currently on the practice squad. All three of these receivers are not good slot options, and they haven’t even been suitable replacements for Marvin. TJ had a promising 2017 campaign, amassing 399 yards on 30 catches. However, this 2018 season has been a huge disappointment, only registering eight catches for 78 yards. Andy started the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and only just caught his first career pass last week against the Chicago Bears. Lacy, an undrafted rookie, caught a mere three passes this preseason for 17 yards.

Let’s look at where they have taken their snaps:

Receiver Snap Counts

Player Year Snaps - Outside Snaps - Slot
Player Year Snaps - Outside Snaps - Slot
TJ Jones 2018 133 114
2017 280 107
2016 42 10
2015 83 69
Andy Jones 2018 31 9
Chris Lacy 2018* 70 8

* Lacy’s snaps took place during preseason

None of these receivers have taken a majority of their snaps in the slot. TJ has the most in a single season this year, but this has resulted in a poor season.

Meanwhile, Billingsley has primarily been a slot option. During the 2016, 2017, and 2018 preseasons, he operated from the slot 94 percent, 89 percent, and 98 percent of the time he was on offense as a receiver, respectively.

Conclusion

I’ve outlined the football reasons why I would like to see Jace Billingsley back on the Lions, but there’s more to it than that. Jace quickly became a favourite of mine. Our own Jeremy Reisman had a fantastic article detailing how Billingsley came to be an undrafted free agent for the Lions.

The pride of Winnemucca dominated the 2016 Name Bracket, thanks to ballot stuffing from friends and family—this doesn’t detract from his win. If anything, it enhances it. People voted en masse against him to stop the Billingsley train. Miles Killebrew received over 12,000 votes.

Yet Billingsley still won.

And he won my heart.