Acclimating to the NFL is difficult for most rookies, but offensive skill positions seem to make the adjustment quicker than at other positions. Even with the shorter learning curve, asking a Day 3 draft pick to start in Week 1 is a tall order, but that’s the situation the Detroit Lions found themselves in 2020.
This is the sixth installment in a series of articles at Pride of Detroit where we will examine the snap counts for the Lions rookies during the 2020 season. You can read the previous articles in this series here: Jeff Okudah, D’Andre Swift, Julian Okwara, Jonah Jackson, and Logan Stenberg.
Quintez Cephus, WR: Round 5, Pick 166
The Lions returned starters Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr, and Danny Amendola, as well as top reserve Marvin Hall. They also converted electric return man Jamal Agnew from corner to receiver—setting the expectations bar for Cephus fairly low.
Cephus was expected to compete with Hall and Agnew for a spot among the reserves, with each of them bringing a different set of skills to the table. Hall was a deep threat, Agnew the jitterbug out of the slot, while Cephus was a natural outside receiver with Big Slot capabilities, a skill the Lions lacked in their offensive arsenal.
There was no rush to push Cephus into action, and with depth at the position, the coaches could use him as a situational option as he acclimated to the NFL.
Then Golladay got injured...
Cephus’ 2020 snap counts
In the chart below, you can see the snap counts from Cephus’ entire rookie season. They are broken down by offensive snaps, percentage of offensive snaps, special teams snaps, and percentage of special teams snaps.
With Golladay injured the first two weeks of the season, the Lions opted to throw Cephus into the starting lineup in Week 1 with the hopes that he could fill the void—a tall ask for the fifth-round rookie. In the opener, Cephus saw his largest snap count of the season and was targeted 10 times (also a season-high), but only caught three passes for 43 yards. Unfortunately, the chemistry between him and Matthew Stafford wasn’t there yet, and they never quite seemed on the same page. In Week 2, Cephus didn’t technically start, but he still saw the second-highest snaps among the receivers group and caught all three of his targets for 54 yards.
The slight scaling back of role and responsibilities proved to work well for the rookie and it appeared as if he could hold the role of WR3 (outside)/WR4 (overall). The early trial by fire held out hope that he might be capable of occasionally producing starter-level snaps moving forward.
When Golladay returned in Week 3, Cephus’ snaps plummeted, as did his role. Gone was the WR3/4 role and instead he was relegated to WR5 or WR6 status. Now, this wasn’t too far off from pre-season expectations, but he had already shown he could do more. It likely would have helped the young receiver’s development if he’d stayed in the mix.
From 10 snaps and zero targets in Week 3, to six snaps and zero targets in Week 4, to a healthy scratch the three weeks following the bye, the coaching staff appeared to have lost confidence in the rookie after starting him just a few weeks earlier.
In Week 8 Golladay was once again injured, as was Agnew (for the next two games), which opened the door for Cephus to get back on the field. Over the next month, Cephus would out-snap Amendola but often found himself slotted behind Hall (who was starting in place of Golladay) and Agnew (when healthy).
After the conclusion of the Lions' annual Thanksgiving game (Week 12), the team made a move to release Hall and signed Mohamed Sanu. With Golladay still injured and Sanu new to the team, the team once again turned to Cephus to start in Week 13. Unfortunately for Cephus, Stafford and Sanu quickly displayed the chemistry the rookie lacked with his quarterback. Sanu would go on to out-snap Cephus that week and was inserted into the starting lineup the rest of the season.
While Cephus was unable to capitalize on his starting opportunity, he was showing well enough to out-snap both Amendola and Agnew over the final month of the season, working his way back into the WR3/4 role.
One of the things that helped Cephus find success in this role was his ability to operate from different spots on the field. On a weekly basis, Cephus would see roughly 40 percent of his snaps from the left outside spot, another 40 percent from the right outside spot, and his final 20 percent from the slot. This versatility should help him moving forward.
Despite a new coaching staff in place, the Lions once again are headed into training camp with clear leaders at their three starting spots: Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman on the outside, with rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot. Beyond that, the reserve roles look very much up for grabs and Cephus has made his case for a top role early in OTAs and minicamp.
The glaring concern for Cephus in 2021 is building chemistry with new quarterback Jared Goff and proving he can get separation during his routes. Goff typically thrives with receivers who can gain separation, but that has never been a strong skill for Cephus. Typically, Cephus uses his crisp route running, body positioning, and strong hands to secure catches, but if Goff doesn’t see him as open, it’s fair to speculate if he will even target the young receiver.
This hasn’t been a problem for the pair so far this offseason, but when the pads come on and the defense starts bringing pressure, things could change quickly.
There is still a lot to be settled in training camp and the preseason, but Cephus almost assuredly enters the fall in a familiar WR3/4 role and as a top reserve. His ability to play multiple roles at different points on the field, as well as producing in camp, would go a long way to helping the Lions round out their receiver group.