When Brad Holmes spent a fourth-round pick on USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown earlier this month in the NFL draft, the Detroit Lions general manager joked the pick “finally will get (people) off my ass about not getting a receiver.”
St. Brown should play a significant role for the Lions this fall, potentially as their starting slot receiver. But his selection hardly gives Holmes and the Lions cover for the void they still have at the position.
The Lions return just one of their top seven receivers from last season, Quintez Cephus, and have turned to a troupe of oft-injured and unproven vets and rookie castoffs as replacements.
Lions coach Dan Campbell said he was ‘impressed” by the six young pass-catchers who took part in last week’s rookie minicamp, but receiver remains the Lions’ thinnest and most vulnerable position entering the summer.
With five or six jobs available this summer, and little help left in free agency, here is a look at how things could shake out for the 12 receivers currently on the Lions’ roster.
Williams had four straight 40-plus catch seasons before missing last year with an injury. At 29, he is not a long-term solution to the Lions’ receiver problems, but his speed and big catch radius were things Holmes wanted to add this offseason. Williams played two seasons for Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers and should be the team’s de facto No. 1 receiver.
Perriman gives the Lions another burner outside, though like Williams he comes with an extensive injury history. He has never had a 40-catch season in his career, but he did have his best season (36 catches, 645 yards, six TDs) playing for new Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El. I’m skeptical he can duplicate those numbers in Detroit, but he shouldn’t lack for opportunity.
St. Brown is the third and final lock for a roster spot as the No. 112 pick of the draft. He’s tough, he’s professional, he’s versatile. Rookie receivers often find the transition to the NFL tough, but St. Brown should have ample opportunity to play and could end up this team’s No. 2 receiver by midseason.
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Cephus had as many catches (20) and more yards receiving (349 to 338) than Kenny Golladay last season. Cephus, of course, is not the same caliber player as his former teammate, but the statistics are worth noting as Golladay signed a mega free agent deal with the New York Giants this offseason while Cephus has been a forgotten man in Detroit.
There’s a high likelihood that Cephus is on the roster this fall, and perhaps playing a bigger role than anyone envisions right now. But because he was a draft pick of the former regime, because he doesn’t have the outside jets the Lions seem to love and because we just haven’t seen enough of him yet, I had to put him in Tier 2.
Kalif Raymond would be comfortably in as the Lions’ fifth receiver if I was doing a roster projection today. The Lions signed Raymond to a one-year deal this offseason with the expectation that he would handle return duties come fall. Nothing has changed with that projection, but Raymond’s contract includes just $250,000 guaranteed, so the Lions have the flexibility to change directions if someone else at the position catches their eye.
Damion Ratley was the fourth free agent receiver the Lions signed this offseason, and it is clear he has a fan in the organization in senior personnel executive John Dorsey (who drafted Ratley to the Cleveland Browns in 2018). Another vertical outside threat, Ratley has managed just 29 catches for 407 yards in his first three NFL seasons. This may be his best opportunity for playing time yet, but with no guaranteed money on his contract, he will need a strong camp to earn a job.
One of three Lions who opted out of the 2020 season, Geronimo Allison is back this spring. Allison had his moments as a part-time starter with the Green Bay Packers from 2016-19, but there is no telling how he will respond to his year off. If nothing else, he gives the Lions insurance in case something happens to Cephus.
Four of the final five receivers on the Lions’ roster — Tom Kennedy, Javon McKinley, Sage Surratt and Jonathan Adams — took part in last week’s rookie minicamp, where Campbell was quick to praise Adams, an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas State, when asked about the receiver group as a whole.
“You watch his movement skills and some of the things he’s doing, and he just keeps showing up,” Campbell said. “It’s like, he’s showing up on tape again in (special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp’s cover drills.”
Special teams ability is often a separator when it comes to the fifth (and possibly sixth) receiver jobs, so Adams will be someone to watch when the pads come on this summer.
Campbell said Kennedy “impressed” last week as well, though his size has proven to be an issue on special teams in previous years. McKinley handled some return duties in camp, and Surratt was notable for his size, but with little to no book on any of these four — and practice squad holdover Victor Bolden — it is impossible to project any winning a roster spot right now.