When the Detroit Lions dealt receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles midway through the season, the team was left in a lurch. The slot receiver that had been one of the most important parts of the team was suddenly removed and they had to find a way to replace him. After a few weeks of trying TJ Jones, Theo Riddick and even Marvin Jones Jr. in the slot, they decided they needed outside help.
Enter Bruce Ellington.
Ellington has had an interesting 2018 season. The receiver started the season as a Houston Texans, but after eight catches for 92 yards in the team’s opening three games, he was released. The receiver went down with an injury early in the Texans’ Week 3 matchup against the New York Giants and Houston decided to move on.
He spent a large portion of the season as a free agent before the Lions came calling. Detroit signed the receiver early in November and he made his first appearance as a Lion in the team’s Week 11 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.
While no one would consider Ellington a star, his impact on the offense has definitely been felt. His 23 receptions since Week 11 are second to only the 25 by Kenny Golladay—and that is with the Ellington sitting out Week 15 with a hamstring injury.
He only has 132 yards as a Lion, though, averaging 5.7 yards per reception. That number is ridiculously low and the reason why is because a majority of his receptions look like this:
On this play against the Chicago Bears, the receiver runs a quick 5-yard curl route out of the slot. He is in all kinds of space when he breaks on his route and Matthew Stafford gets him the ball almost instantly. Ellington catches the ball, turns around and gets instantly swarmed by defenders. He barely picks up anything after the catch.
A large majority of the catches that Ellington makes are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. He rarely runs anything other than curls, quick outs or quick in routes. The receiver runs short routes, turns around, makes a catch and goes down.
This is mainly because of Ellington’s physical limitations. The receiver is not fast and agile. He is not fast enough to burn a corner defending him. He does not have the explosion necessary to get the jump on a defender and beat him within the first few steps. Ellington is very stiff and once he is down field against a corner, he has issues wiggling away from the man guarding him and into open space.
Because of this, the receiver rarely even runs downfield routes. When he does, he rarely gets any sort of separation.
Detroit does love using Ellington on screen passes, though. His lack of speed and general stiffness become apparent and make one wonder why he is the target of screen passes at all.
Ellington is lined up behind teammate Kenny Golladay on this play. He catches a quick pass and has his fellow receiver in front of him as a lead blocker. Detroit’s offensive line does a good job getting out to the flat and creating a crease for Ellington. His lack of agility and explosiveness means that it takes him forever to get to the hole and a defender gets to him before the play can get started.
Being able to make the first man miss is crucial to getting yards after the catch. One of Tate’s greatest skills was his quick thinking and great footwork that allowed him to slip by the first defender and into open space. Ellington does not have the physical ability to reliably make the first man miss, but what he lacks in physical talent he makes up mentally.
On this play against the Panthers, he catches a pass on one of his regular curl routes. His weight is shifted to his left once he makes the catch. As a corner quickly closes in on him from behind, he shifts to his right and beats the defender. While the defender’s bad angle was part of the reason Ellington broke free, just a slight move by the receiver sent a corner running at him full speed flying by like they were bullfighting.
After beating that first man he turns up field for some YAC. While a faster, more agile, receiver could have taken this play for a lot more, Ellington’s quick thinking earned the team some extra yardage.
While Ellington is not the most gifted receiver on Detroit’s offense, he seems to be a favorite of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. The receiver is placed all over the field pre-snap and plays a multitude of roles. He gets a majority on his snaps in the slot but does split wide at times. Sometimes he will line up as a running back in shotgun formations. Occasionally he will take his spot as a flanker in the backfield and pull across the formation like and old school fullback.
Ellington seems to be the key that unlocked Cooter’s creativity this season and almost every play the Lions run that has particularly impressive design seem to focus on Ellington. This is interesting, though, as the receiver’s physical capabilities limit how effective they can be.
Take this shovel pass against the Rams, for example:
This is a very interesting play. Stafford takes the snap and begins to roll out of the pocket as if this is a play designed to shift the pocket in the red zone—something a lot of NFL teams do when things get cramped near the goal line. Ellington starts to come across the backfield as if he is going to run to the opposite flat, something Detroit does often with both Ellington and Golladay. Instead, Stafford quickly shifts back inside and throws a shovel pass to Ellington. The receiver gets decapitated by Dante Fowler Jr. and the play goes for no gain.
This play, like many of the other creative plays Detroit runs with Ellington, did not work. It is very interesting that Ellington is the ball carrier of choice in many of these, though. You could argue that literally any other wide receiver or running back on the roster other than LeGarrette Blount is a better ball carrier.
While the decision seems odd, it begins to make more sense when you take a wider look at who Ellington is as a player. He is a smart player that can excellently perform the task he is usually assigned. The receiver operates well within a script and rarely tries to “do too much” with a play. If you need Ellington to run 5 yards downfield, find a small hole within the opponent’s zone coverage and just stand there, he will do that. He will not do the spectacular but he gets the job done.
There are low odds of the receiver busting one of these plays for a huge gain, but it is easy to see why a conservative play caller like Cooter loves utilizing a player who will stick to the script and get the job done.
Ellington clearly is not the best with the ball in his hands, but his physical limitations do not end there. His short 5-foot-9 stature is one of the many limiting factors that prevents him from doing more than catching open curl routes. He does not play the ball well and can rarely make a catch when Stafford’s accuracy is off. Ellington is rendered ineffective when he is jammed at the line of scrimmage as he does not have the strength or agility to work his way around more physical corners. While he does a great job operating within a script the script cannot ask much of him.
Detroit’s season is effectively over and the receiver will likely be questionable for the last two games of the season with a hamstring injury anyways. So that leaves only one real question to ask.
Should Ellington be a part of Detroit’s future plans?
This answer may seem odd after I spent about seven paragraphs above criticizing him, but yes. I truly believe Ellington can be a great tool for the Lions next season—assuming he can stay healthy.
Ellington reminds me of a lite version (and I really want to emphasize the word lite) of Miami Dolphins era Jarvis Landry. He does not have the catch radius or athleticism of Landry but they effectively fill similar roles: Run a 5-yard route, sit between zones, make catch. If the defense decides to focus on Golladay or Jones Jr. downfield then he gives Stafford a reliable short gain. If the defense uses resources to take away Ellington, then it frees space downfield for the Lions deep threats. If you are familiar with Miami’s 2016 offense, then it is similar to the dynamic of how Landry and Kenny Stills played off of each other.
Detroit’s offense has taken a step back in consecutive seasons. They were marginally better in 2016 than 2017, then took a huge step back in 2018. While Cooter takes a lot of heat for the offense’s failings, he was the offensive coordinator in 2016 and the team was using the same scheme then.
One of the reasons for the offenses failures has been the lack of variety in the team’s receiving options. In 2016, the team had Anquan Boldin, a slot receiver that was very reliable at getting open on shorter routes and was always there is Stafford needed him. In 2017, Detroit had Eric Ebron, a speedy deep threat who could stretch defenses vertically and open room for Tate underneath to fill Boldin’s void.
In 2018, Tate was responsible for filling both Boldin and Ebron’s void and it left the offense in flux. With Tate out of the picture, Detroit did not have any receivers that could reliably get open until Ellington arrived.
Assuming Detroit either drafts or signs a speedster at receiver and a reliable receiving tight end, Ellington is a great player to keep around as a WR4. He will be affordable and with everyone healthy, his use would be limited anyways. He can do a decent job filling the Boldin role in the offense and can help attract attention away from Jones Jr. and Golladay downfield.
Ellington is not a great player. He does not appear on many highlight reels and probably will not be the guy that wins this team a Super Bowl. His role as a standard possession receiver has value for the Lions, though.