There is a very good chance that Detroit Lions wide receiver Brandon Powell was one of the last players Bob Quinn selected to make the team’s final 53-man roster last September. The 5-foot-8 undrafted receiver out of Florida had seemingly no chance to make the roster early in training camp last summer, but caught the eye of fans—and Detroit’s front office—with an impressive preseason.
Powell spent much of the season waiting in the wings. The Lions’ talented receiving corps featuring Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay owned almost all of the early season work at receiver, and Powell spent much of the year as a healthy scratch.
As the team’s receiving corps was decimated by injuries and Tate was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, Powell was activated as a member of the B-squad receivers room that featured Andy Jones, TJ Jones and Chris Lacy.
The undrafted rookie would end up appearing in six games last season. He caught 11 out of 17 targets for 129 yards. While that adds up to 11.7 yards per reception, if you remove one 41 yard catch—which we will get to later—that number drops to a lowly 8.8 yards per catch.
Powell’s greatest talent is his shiftiness and quick change of direction. The rookie had the ability to constantly keep defenders on their toes and made himself slippery when opponents came in for the tackle. He even managed to use his size to his advantage, getting low and beneath the arms of tacklers to slip through them.
On this play against the Green Bay Packers in the 2018 season finale, Powell spins a tackler around and escapes a near certain tackle.
Powell runs a quick out against man coverage here. Matthew Stafford is able to quickly get him the ball as he breaks on his route and the receiver makes the catch at the sideline. There is a defender on top of him the second he catches it, though, but instead of letting himself get pushed out of bounds, he quickly gets low and spins around to avoid the tackle. The receiver then darts upfield for a big gain on a play that could have been stopped for much less.
The receiver also has great vision and patience as a runner. He sets his blocks up well and does a great job reading what happening in front of him and sensing what holes will open.
He shows off his skill in the open field on this play against the Buffalo Bills:
Powell motions from his spot split wide pre-snap and takes an end around hand off out of the backfield. The Bills defense does a great job getting wide to cover his run, and a defender even knifes into the backfield to take away any sort of cutback lane. Once Powell finds the edge he makes a hard cut upfield. With two defenders in his path, he hesitates for a second and finds a hole open up to his right and follows his blocker that paves a way for him upfield.
The receiver managed to earn 5 yards on a run that should have gone nowhere. His unpredictable, shifty running style made it hard for Buffalo’s defense to even get a hand on him.
This running style also becomes an asset when he tries to get open as a receiver. Powell is a great route runner that torches defenses in man coverage. Defenders cannot guess his next move, and once he gets a step on a defender, they have trouble making up the gap.
He embarrasses another Packers defender on this play:
Powell is lined up in the slot on this play, and is given a 4-yard cushion by the corner across from him. After running about 7 yards downfield, he breaks his route well inside, and gets a step on his opponent. Once the corner who is covering is him turns his body towards the inside to chase him, Powell quickly whips his body all the way around and breaks his route back outside. He leaves the defensive back in his dust and makes a wide open catch for a big gain.
The receiver has all of the vision, patience and elusiveness to be a star in this league, despite his size. There is one glaring flaw in his game, though.
He is not fast.
Powell does not pack enough speed to break away from defenders in open space. While his elusiveness and smart pathing usually help him out, he still lacks in speed.
On this play against the Packers he had all the space in the world. His vision and elusiveness still get him all the way to the 15, but his lack of speed becomes grossly apparent.
When you think of some of the most noteworthy short guys in the league, all of them are speedsters. Tarik Cohen (5-foot-6), Tavon Austin (5-foot-9) and rookie Marquise Brown (5-foot-9) are all significantly faster than Powell. Even players who are slightly taller—like Antonio Brown (5-foot-10) and Golden Tate (5-foot-10)—are packing a lot more speed than the Lions receiver. Ryan Switzer (5-foot-10), a receiver who is not particularly known for being fast, is even much faster.
Speed, while helpful, isn’t essential for a guy like Powell. Cole Beasley (5-foot-8) and Wes Welker (5-foot-9) are two notable short slot receivers who made a living in the NFL despite a lack of long speed. Both of them have great, strong, hands though. Powell does not.
The Lions receiver struggles to hold on to balls through contact and rarely even makes the catch when he is faced with any contact at all. Powell is not strong enough at the point of attack, and with such a small frame, it is hard to imagine that he ever will be.
On this play against the Chicago Bears, he runs a great route to get open downfield. Stafford quickly gets him the ball, and hits him in the hands with a well thrown pass. By the time the ball gets to the receiver, a defender has closed on him, and is able to easily jar the ball loose with a hit from behind:
Powell needs to be able to bring down this ball. His back is to the defender and he should be able to shield himself. The receiver has to be able to use his back to shield the ball, catch the pass and go to the ground.
So can Powell fit in the Lions offense in 2019?
It is hard to see the receiver being anything more than a gadget player in this offense this season. While he is a great route runner and can occasionally get open downfield, he is at his best on screens, end arounds and short, quick routes. Plays designed to use him as a short yardage gadget seem to be his strength.
Jones Jr. and Golladay are set to be WR1 and WR2 entering this season. Danny Amendola was signed from the Miami Dolphins to play in the slot, and although he is over the hump, he has a connection to the coaching staff due to the many years he spent on the New England Patriots and proved he could produce in 2018.
Rookie sixth-round pick Travis Fulgham probably has a role as well. Detroit is in desperate need for speed at receiver, and Fulgham may be the fastest guy they have right now.
That means that barring an injury or an unexpectedly impressive camp from Powell, he will be WR5 at best.
Powell is not a guarantee to make the roster. While he probably will, he will have to fight hard in order to carve a role for himself in Detroit’s offense this season.
He beat all of the odds to make the roster in 2018, though, so who says he can not beat the odds again in 2019 and become a huge part of the Lions offense?