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Season in Review: Receivers

The 2009 season was very difficult for the Lions receiving corps, which is rarely discussed without being a punch line.  It is one of the rare positions on the Lions roster that contains one of the premier talents of the NFL, Calvin Johnson.  Outside of Calvin Johnson, the rest of the depth chart matches what people expect.

The hot button word of the month is “eraser” and it is quickly becoming synonymous with the Lions passing struggles of 2009.  Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan refers to an “eraser” as another player or players that help take the burden off Calvin Johnson.  It’s very difficult to consistently study secondary play without being able to see coaches film, but there were times when opposing defenses were triple covering CJ.  Defenses only have the nerve to commit that many defenders to one player when they do not have any reason to worry about the rest of the offensive players.

The receivers really struggled after the injuries to Kevin Smith, Matthew Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew.  The quarterback play dropped off with Stafford’s injury, Pettigrew was becoming a big eraser when he got hurt and Kevin Smith is a huge receiving threat out of the backfield.

Many teams would struggle with the loss of their starting quarterback, tight end and running back, but unfortunately, the Lions were having difficulties even when all three were healthy.  The issues stem from the lack of a consistent running game and Matthew Stafford’s inexperience.  A great example of how potent the passing game could be was the first half of the Bears game in Chicago.

The Lions had been running the ball effectively the first few weeks of the season and Stafford had been struggling with turnovers.  The Bears decided to bring eight men into the box to stop the running game and let Stafford beat them.  By bringing eight men into the box, they had to cover Calvin Johnson one-on-one.  Stafford and Calvin connected four times for 96 yards and the Lions put up 21 first half points.

Another good example was the epic Browns game, Kevin Smith had over 100 yards receiving and Brandon Pettigrew was taking advantage of the attention paid to Calvin with six catches for 72 yards and the game winning touchdown.  Calvin was able to abuse the single coverage for seven catches for 161 yards and a 75-yard touchdown.

The Lions flashed potential from time to time in 2009, but they need to add a couple more pieces to get on track.  Add Stafford’s maturation to the mix and the Lions shouldn’t be too far away from fielding a potent offense.

Here are some brief comments on each receiver and what direction the Lions will take in the offseason.

Calvin Johnson: His season was marred by injuries and erratic quarterbacking, but he still almost reached 1,000 yards and has solidified his place among the elite players in the league.  He and Stafford never really got the chance to establish a great rapport since Stafford was splitting time with Culpepper during OTAs, mini camps and training camp.  With a full offseason together, a Pro Bowl berth is well within reach in 2010.   2010 Season: Will start.

Bryant Johnson: Bryant Johnson had to be the season’s biggest disappointment.  Nobody expected Pro Bowl numbers out of him when he was signed, but 35 catches for 417 yards and 3 TDs was atrocious.  He caught tow passes or less in 11 of 16 games and never drew attention away from CJ.  I want to give him the benefit of the doubt since he never played in this type of offense before, but his struggles seemed to be in all phases of the game, not just timing.  2010 Season: He carries a decent enough salary that he could be asked to take a cut or leave.  He didn’t prove nearly enough to be counted on in 2010.

Dennis Northcutt: Northcutt was a decent slot receiver and a reliable return man, which is what the Lions expected when they traded for him.  His physical skills have eroded to the point that he isn’t a threat to break any big plays.  He didn’t make many plays, but also didn’t make many huge blunders.  The Lions need more than that in 2010 though.  2010 Season: Northcutt has a high salary that does not match his production.  He will be gone.

Derrick Williams: A lot of people are down on Williams after his underwhelming rookie season, but wide receiver is one of the most difficult positions to adjust to as a rookie.  He was most disappointing in the return game, which was the only area he was expected to make an impact.  He has the raw skills to be an effective slot receiver and maybe in another season or two he could blossom into a starter.  It’s hard to write off a receiver until after his third year in the league, so we need to be patient.  2010 Season: I believe the coaches will focus on getting him ready for special teams first, then they will look for contributions as a receiver.  He will need to at least be able to step in as the fourth receiver to be on the active roster.

Brandon Pettigrew: I was not a fan of the Pettigrew pick, and I still wish we would have gone with Michael Oher instead.  However, Pettigrew really started to show what a weapon he can be before getting injured.  He got off to a slow start because of injuries in training camp and it took him a while to really get involved in the offense.  He was a strong blocker in college and didn’t disappoint as a rookie, and his receiving numbers were exceptional for a rookie.  Hopefully he’s a fast healer, because he is an important part of the offense.  2010 Season: Pettigrew will start as soon as he’s completely healthy.

Will Heller: The Lions signed Will Heller to be a blocking tight end and he surprised by displaying solid receiving skills as well.  He’s not nearly the same threat Pettigrew is, but he’s a very similar type of player. 2010 Season: Should reprise role as second tight end.

Casey Fitzsimmons: Fitz is one of the rare bright spots from the Matt Millen Error..I mean Era.  He is a solid all-around player that can contribute as a tight end, fullback and Pro Bowl caliber special teamer.  He is the heir to the Cory “Sledge” Schlesinger throne. 2010 Season: He is far to versatile to not return.

Offseason Goal(s): The Lions will be looking for at least two receivers and maybe another tight end if Pettigrew ends up on the PUP list.  They really need another receiver that is a threat to get open deep whether he is a speedy receiver or a big guy like Vincent Jackson.  They also need a Wes Welker type slot receiver.  He doesn’t need to be flashy, he just needs to be able to get open and have good hands.  Stafford is the type of quarterback that can make his receivers better, if he significantly improves his accuracy.  The Lions will need to find their answers in free agency because it’s too much to expect a rookie to come in and play at a high enough level to draw coverage away from CJ.  At tight end the Lions can really stand pat and be fine if Pettigrew is on target to return before the start of the season.  If he is behind in his rehab, they may sign somebody or rely on a young guy like Jake Nordin who got some playing time after Pettigrew went down.  If a solid tight end is cut in a salary purge, the Lions could make a move because they utilize so many two tight end formations.

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