Season Preview: Receiving Corps

Despite possessing the most talented wide receiver in the league, the 2009 Detroit Lions’ receiving corps was a mess.  Teams covet elite receivers because they force the defense to roll coverage to that receiver.  This leaves all the other receivers facing single coverage which is far easier to exploit, theoretically.  Unfortunately for the Lions, none of their other receivers were able to take advantage of the attention paid to CJ.

Calvin Johnson was limited to 67 receptions for 984 yards in 2009 due to frequent double and triple coverage.  That left Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt facing single coverage on almost every play and they combined for 70 receptions for 774 yards.  The second leading receiver on the team was Kevin Smith with 41 rec. for 415 yards and he only played 13 games.

The Lions entered the offseason desperately needing to find complementary players to take advantage of the attention paid to Calvin.  Ideally, they will not only take advantage of the single coverage, but force teams out of paying so much attention to CJ.

The biggest addition to the receiving corp was Nate Burleson, who was signed on the first day of free agency.  Scott Linehan is very familiar with Burleson from their days in Minnesota and he made Burleson very aware of the Lions interest by meeting him in Seattle for dinner two minutes after free agency opened.

Many doubt Burleson’s potential impact after looking at his career stats, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  Burleson’s best season came when he played opposite Randy Moss in Minnesota, when he was taking advantage of the attention paid to Moss.   Burleson put up over 1,000 yards and 9 TDs in the same offense the Lions run now, under the same offensive coordinator with another dynamic talent on the other side of the formation. 

Am I saying Burleson will put up those kinds of numbers?  No.  Does he need to to be considered a  successful signing?  No.  Burleson doesn’t need to put up certain numbers to be a success, CJ’s numbers will determine Burleson’s success.  Burleson’s big play ability has been under-utilized the last few years in Seattle’s West Coast system, but it helped him refine his route running and become a more well-rounded player.  The major concern with Burleson is his injury history, as he has never played a full 16 game season.

Last year’s number two receiver is now competing to be this year’s number three, a role Bryant Johnson is more familiar with.   Johnson struggled to consistently get open and Matthew Stafford lost confidence in him as the season wore on.  Johnson had 4 receptions for 73 yards and a TD in the win against Washington and it looked like he was on the verge of establishing a rapport with Stafford.  Johnson wouldn’t catch more than three passes in a game until he caught four against the Bears in Week 17.

Johnson was the slot receiver in Arizona while Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin drew all the attention on the outside.  Johnson didn’t put up monster numbers, but he was able to put together some solid performances.  The Lions may not have much faith in him rebounding this year because early indications are Tony Scheffler will be used in a tight end/slot receiver role much like Dallas Clark is for the Colts.  If that’s the case, Johnson will be relegated to four receiver packages and spot duty unless somebody gets hurt.

After Johnson, the depth chart at receiver gets fuzzy.  The Lions have a number of young prospects that haven’t proven anything and veteran Dennis Northcutt who has lost a step and is nearing the end of his career.

Northcutt was the primary punt returner last year, but he lacked the explosiveness the coaches want from that position.  He matched Bryant Johnson in receptions in 2009, but didn’t create much after the catch and his size limits him to working from the slot.

The young players in the group fall into three categories, recent draft picks, undrafted rookie free agents and career practice squaders.  Derrick Williams and Tim Toone were selected in the third and seventh rounds respectively, both for their special teams acumen and potential to play in the slot.  Michael Moore and Contrevious Parks are undrafted rookie free agents while the rest of the group, Brian Clark and Eric Fowler, have spent multiple seasons on various practice squads.

Williams is under fire and facing the bust label already, which I believe is premature.  He struggled with his confidence on special teams and he faced a huge jump from his college offense to a pro offense.  The Lions drafted him hoping he would solidify the kick return job while he learned the ropes as a receiver, oddly enough he showed more promise as a receiver and struggled on special teams. 

I’m not ready to rule him out this early.  Everybody on the Lions special teams unit struggled last year, and it cost Stan Kwan his job.  Williams was a multi-purpose weapon in college playing running back, wide receiver, special teams and even quarterback in the “Wildcat.”  He is learning how to run routes and pick up the concepts of the pro passing game.

The most settled and deep aspect of the receiving corps is the tight end group.  Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Will Heller and Dan Gronkowski bring a unique blend of ability to the position.

Pettigrew has the ability to be one of the best all-around tight ends in the league with his devastating blocking and natural feel for the passing game.  His rookie year was marred by a hamstring injury that limited him in training camp and the torn ACL that ended his season.  Prior to his season ending injury, he was really getting a feel for the passing game and getting into a rhythm with Stafford.

Will Heller stepped in and adequately filled the void blocking, while displaying surprisingly effective skills as a receiver.  Heller was viewed as strictly a blocking tight end, but he put up 29 receptions for almost 300 yards and 3 TDs.

“Gronko” saw limited time on the active roster, but he comes from a talented blue-collar football family that produced second rounder Rob Gronkowski in the 2010 Draft.  Dan is a more polished receiver at this stage in his development, but the Lions see a little Casey Fitzsimmons in him.  He can contribute as a receiver, should be a functional blocker and solid special teamer.

Last but certainly not least, is the biggest addition to the Lions receiving corps, Tony Scheffler.  The acquisition of Scheffler has surprisingly flown under the radar, most likely due to the down season he had in Denver last year.  Scheffler averaged 45 receptions, 600 yards and 4 TDs in 2007 and 2008.  He was a poor fit in Denver’s new offense last year, but still reeled in 31 rec. for 416 yards and 2 TDs.

Scheffler is a huge target in the passing game at 6-5 255 and he runs like a receiver.  He can play on the line as a traditional tight end and split out wide in the slot.  He is also comfortable playing an H-Back role as well.  Scheffler gives the Lions a legitimate threat in the middle of the field that can not only work the short zones but win matchups down the field against safeties.  His speed makes him difficult to match up to man to man and his size gives him an advantage against zone coverage.  I actually believe Scheffler will be more effective in the “eraser” role for the Lions despite all the attention being paid to Burleson as the guy to free up Megatron.

The Lions’ passing game has gotten a big shot in the arm with the additions of Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler.  Add in the most physically talented receiver in the league and you have the makings of a dominant receiver corps.  Unfortunately, the Lions are woefully short on depth at wideout once you get past CJ and Burleson.  The tight end position will mask some of the depth issues as Scheffler will partially fill the slot role, and Pettigrew’s return will bring a pleathora of two tight end sets.

The Lions need two of those young wideouts to stand out in training camp and the preseason to protect the passing game in case of injury.  The fourth and fifth (if the Lions keep five) receiver spots will need to produce on special teams as well as in the passing game.  Williams, Northcutt, Toone and Clark all have special teams experience, while Northcutt and Clark offer some veteran experience.

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