In 2021, the Detroit Lions experimented with a lot of different receivers, constantly looking for the right combination of talent and production. Between the start of training camp through the end of the season, the Lions employed 19 different receivers. Recognizable names like Breshad Perriman, Geronimo Allison, and Victor Bolden never made it out of training camp, while players like Tyrell Williams and Sage Surratt (practice squad) were released in-season.
Of the eight receivers that ended the season on the roster (active, practice squad, or injured reserve) just six return in 2022: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, Trinity Benson, and Tom Kennedy.
With these six players providing a foundation to build on, the Lions spent the 2022 offseason fine-tuning and focusing on adding playmakers (Jameson Williams and DJ Chark) to round out the position group. The Lions were able to accomplish this quick turnaround because of their diligence in constantly looking for upgrades, while also getting impressive production out of young players that they invested in—most notably from St. Brown.
If St. Brown doesn’t develop at the rapid pace he did, the Lions likely have a much different approach to the position, and wouldn’t be nearly as far along in the process as they are.
Let’s take a closer look at St. Brown, in the latest installment of our roster preview series.
Previously: QB Jared Goff, RB Godwin Igwebuike, RB Jermar Jefferson, TE Brock Wright, WR Quintez Cephus, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, LB Derrick Barnes
Amon-Ra St. Brown
Expectations heading into 2021
Checking in at a tick under six feet tall and running around a 4.6 40-yard-dash, St. Brown fit the profile of a slot receiver. But his skill set was non-traditional for a slot, as he wasn’t lightning quick, but instead found separation through his professional level route running and desire to outwork the man across from him. With this combination of traits St. Brown was expected to drop into the later part of Day 2 of the NFL Draft, but when he slipped to Day 3, the Lions jumped at the opportunity to select him.
St. Brown is exactly the type of player that fits this coaching staff and front office. He may not possess elite speed, but he is very explosive, highly intelligent, and his work ethic is off the charts. Regardless of the offensive play call, St. Brown consistently runs his routes with the same level of technical prowess, which often keeps defenders guessing.
St. Brown’s biggest competition for a starting slot role was Kalif Raymond, but when Breshad Perriman fizzled out, Raymond was the team's best option on the outside and that cemented St. Brown as the Lions' starting slot receiver in Week 1.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 17 games (9 starts): 90 receptions on 115 targets for 912 yards (10.13 yards per reception), 5 receiving touchdowns, 7 rushing attempts for 61 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 2 successful 2-point conversions, and 1 tackle
PFF overall grade: 79.9
Let’s explore a few more PFF grades for a clearer perspective of St. Brown’s season.
- PFF receiving grade, WRs with 50 targets: 80.0, 17th out of 90 players
PFF receiving grade, WRs with 50 targets, 50% snaps in the slot: 3rd out of 27 players*
*St. Brown ranks behind only Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill
- PFF drop grade: 91.0, 1st in NFL regardless of position
Despite being the Lions' best option in the slot, early in the season, St. Brown was low on the target list. T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift were the offensive focus, while Raymond and Tyrell Williams saw the majority of wide receiver targets. When Williams went down, his targets shifted to Quintez Cephus, but when he suffered a season-ending injury, St. Brown was the next man up.
For the next two months, St. Brown saw between four and eight targets a game, but behind the scenes, he was building trust with quarterback Jared Goff. That hard work paid off in Week 13 when the Lions hosted the Minnesota Vikings.
Winless up until this point in the season, the Lions had the opportunity to drive down the field to try and secure their first victory under coach Dan Campbell. The game came down to one final play, and the Lions had a specific call—that they had practiced all year—just for this moment. While the Lions were ready with the play call, the personnel groupings were not the original and had changed just a few weeks prior, when they switched St. Brown’s role to the outside and made him the primary target.
St. Brown’s hard work led to the switch, and the move paid off:
Love to see it @JaredGoff16 to @amonra_stbrown for the game-winner!— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 5, 2021
CBS | #OnePride pic.twitter.com/aN1S3hKP8A
The victory over the Vikings was the turning point in the season for St. Brown. He went into the game as a solid, reliable option in the slot and emerged as a force on the field, simply taking over games as the Lions' top offensive weapon.
From that point on, St. Brown saw double-digit targets every week and had at least eight receptions and 73 yards in each game—including over 100+ receiving yards in the final two games of the season—and scored a touchdown in five of the six games. To further cement this point, every game after that first win, St. Brown saw his PFF grade increase:
Week 13 (Vikings), PFF grade: 71.5
Week 14: 71.9
Week 15: 78.8
Week 16: 80.5
Week 17: 88.4
Week 18: 90.6
St. Brown’s play down the stretch was so consistently dominant in so many ways that he proved this late-season surge was no fluke but, instead, a glimpse of the player he can be. And he is just scratching that surface of who he can become.
Outlook for 2022
With the addition of playmakers DJ Chark and Jameson Williams, it’s fair to speculate that their presence could take away from St. Brown’s opportunities to contribute. But he sees their additions as a benefit for his game.
“I think it’s just going to open up more holes in the middle,” St. Brown said during OTAs. “I don’t think we had too much success last year with the deep ball. That’s an area as an offense that we want to improve on, and adding guys like that is going to help us. Like I said, it’s just going to open up more holes in the middle, so it’s going to be great for us.”
Lions coaches are also quick to point out that the extra talent is a tremendous resource, but they’re also well aware of what they have in St. Brown.
“We brought DJ (Chark) in, we brought Jameson (Williams), but Saint’s the guy,” wide receiver coach Antwaan Randle El said of St. Brown at OTAs. “That’s the dude, in terms of he gets it, continues to get it, and it’s good to see. Second-year, the same focus—even greater focus. ‘Coach, teach me this.’”
St. Brown’s work ethic continues to impress and should only help him continue to elevate his game. During OTAs, he explained that this offseason, in addition to his physical developments, he was also focusing his attention on understanding defenses better. His goal is to be able to recognize things quicker, so that he can get an advantage over defensive backs. St. Brown is constantly looking for that extra edge and is willing to do whatever it takes.
“Whether that’s blocking, catching the ball, running, route running. Whatever it is, if I’m getting better, it’s going to help the team,” St. Brown said.
When you combine St. Brown’s dedication towards improvement, field stretchers opening up the middle of the field, and coaches recognition of what he is capable of, it gives a strong indicator that we have yet to see how high the Sun God can fly.