The Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is inching closer every day and our training camp preview series continues to roll on to help fans prep for the fall spectacle. If you missed any of the series, so far we have discussed the quarterbacks and running back groups:
Next up on the agenda, we take a look at the Lions wide receiver group and explore the perceived hierarchy, how the team will adjust to the Jameson Williams suspension, who will be expected to step up, and how the roster construction will likely adapt.
Setting the table
The Lions invested in the wide receiver position over the last two seasons and have established a solid group of core players, including Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds, and Kalif Raymond. All four return to the team for the upcoming season.
Of the receivers to make Detroit’s initial 2022 53-man roster, the Lions lost two this past offseason: DJ Chark in free agency and Quintez Cephus, who was released after being indefinitely suspended for gambling.
To counter these losses, the Lions re-signed Marvin Jones Jr. after a three-year stint in Jacksonville and drafted Antoine Green in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.
In addition to the group of players that made the initial roster, the Lions also utilized another four receivers throughout the season: Tom Kennedy (7 games), Maurice Alexander (4 games), Trinity Benson (1 game before landing on injured reserve), and Stanley Berryhill (1 game). Kennedy, Alexander, and Benson all return in 2023, while Berryhill (who was also suspended for gambling) was released this spring.
To round out the group for training camp, the Lions signed two undrafted rookies—Dylan Drummond and Chase Cota—bringing the wide receiver total up to 11 rostered players for the fall.
The Lions opened 2022 with five receivers on the active roster, one (Williams) on the NFI list, and three on the practice squad. Eventually, the Lions would expand the group to six rostered players, and more often than not, they would elevate a player from the practice squad to fill in for injured players.
Like with the Lions running back group, their wide receivers on the initial roster missed a fair amount of time due to injury with Raymond being the only one to play in every game. St. Brown missed a single game, Reynolds missed three, Chark was unable to play in six games (including a stint on injured reserve), Williams missed the first 11 games while on the NFI, and Cephus was placed on IR after Week 4, missing a total of 13 games.
Therefore, as with discussed with the running backs, it’s difficult to determine whether the Lions preferred to keep five or six wide receivers because injuries seemed to derail the original plan.
With Williams suspended for the first six games of 2023, the Lions will surely keep at least five receivers on the active roster, and it’s possible a sixth could be added depending on how the rest of the offensive skill players round out the roster.
St. Brown, Reynolds, and Raymond are locked into roster spots this season, while Marvin Jones also looks like a very safe bet for the 53-man team. This group of four should be the primary targets in the Lions’ offense until Williams returns from suspension.
That leaves at least one, maybe two roster spots available for the position group, though it’s worth remembering that two or three will likely make the practice squad and play in 2023. That means it’s possible that as many as four of the remaining six reserves could end up with Detroit in some capacity.
The hierarchy battleground
Early target/snaps predictions should have St. Brown leading the way and hoping to make another Pro Bowl. Reynolds should be next in line and is expected to be a starter for the entire season. When Williams is able to return from suspension, most agree he will crack the starting lineup, but until he is acclimated and ready to go, the Lions are expected to lean on Raymond and Jones to split a starting role.
The final spot (or two) will likely come down to a combination of offensive skills and special teams contributions. Let’s take a look at the competitors for the final spot(s).
Antoine Green. A field stretcher with long strides and sneaky quickness to eat up the cushion. He showed the ability to expand his game in spring camp, introducing more time over the middle. He may get early work as a WR-Z, but he has the range to develop into a solid WR-X—something this team lacks. Green has also shown a willingness to contribute on special teams, further helping his case for the roster.
Tom Kennedy. A proficient pass catcher and route runner, Kennedy’s quickness can be a real problem for defenses to handle. The biggest obstacle for Kennedy has been, and likely still is, his inability to consistently contribute on special teams. For as offensively talented as he is, he may once again be relegated to a practice squad role and elevated only situationally, until he can take the next step in the third phase.
Maurice Alexander. Primarily added for his returner and gunner skills, Alexander is arguably the second-best special teamer in this group, behind only Raymond, who was an All-Pro punt returner in 2022. Alexander only had one catch for seven yards last season, but he also took six kick returns back for 146 yards, for a solid 24.33 ypr average. Consistency on offense will be his key to a spot on the roster.
Trinity Benson. A field stretcher on offense with a gunner’s skill set on special teams, Benson has been on the cusp of being a contributor for two seasons now. Unfortunately, Green’s presence makes Benson’s path to the roster more difficult as they share similar ways of contributing.
Dylan Drummond. He impressed enough during a rookie tryout to earn a contract and looked quick and crisp in his routes over the spring. Since we haven’t been able to see him practice in pads, it’s difficult to gauge his ceiling on offense or special teams skills, but he has earned his spot and warrants a deeper look in the fall.
Chase Cota. Checking in over 6-foot-3 but working primarily out of the slot, Cota offers a different skill set than the Lions have at receiver. Unfortunately, he far too often looks like a pass catching tight end, rather than a big slot receiver, which makes finding a role for him challenging. Is he unique enough to catch the coach's attention? Or is he a square peg in a round hole?
Erik: I’ve got to say, I’ve been impressed enough with Green that I’m willing to tab him my early favorite for the fifth receiver role (sixth when Williams returns). If the Lions decide to keep another, I’m not sure I have a favorite between Kennedy, Benson, or Alexander, because they all bring something different to the table.
How about you, Jeremy, how are you leaning for the final spot or two at receiver?
Jeremy: It was tough to get a full evaluation of the newcomers in the spring due to some rough quarterback play with the third-team offense, but Green probably has a leg up on the competition. Two players I wouldn’t count out completely, though, are Kennedy and Alexander. We saw how agonizing it was for the Lions to cut Kennedy last year—and he still ended up playing seven games for Detroit. And Alexander has some special teams chops including kick return experience, which just so happens to be an open competition after Detroit chose not to retain Justin Jackson.
Erik: That’s pretty close to where I’m landing as well. After Green, I think Kennedy may be the preferred option on offense, and by coaches, but Alexander’s special teams skills could end up giving him an edge for WR6/kick returner-type role.
So for me, this is how I see the receiver room heading into camp:
Starting slot: Amon-Ra St. Brown
Starting WR-X: Josh Reynolds
Starting WR-Z: Marvin Jones and Kalif Raymond
Mid-season starting WR-Z: Jameson Williams
WR depth: Antoine Green
Kick Returner: Maurice Alexander
Practice squad: Tom Kennedy and Trinity Benson
Working for a spot: Dylan Drummond and Chase Cota