Elite receivers rule the NFL. The Detroit Lions should do whatever it takes to pursue one

Detroit Free Press

The San Francisco 49ers may or may not trade their star receiver, Deebo Samuel. If they do, the Detroit Lions should absolutely do everything they can to get him.

Obviously, they need help scoring touchdowns. And Samuel is as good at that as any playmaker in the NFL.

There’s also the ripple effect Samuel’s presence would create, opening space for receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Though the dominoes wouldn’t stop falling there.

Jared Goff would have easier throws and easier decisions. The offensive line might not have to hold their blocking positions as long. Running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams would take handoffs headed into a defense less certain about what was coming.

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There was a period of NFL history not too long ago when teams with the league’s best receivers didn’t regularly play deep into the playoffs. Top-shelf receivers were thought of as a luxury, or as a way to sell tickets and jerseys.

That period is finished.

The New England Patriots’ model of Tom Brady, a good defense and a rotating buffet of competent — but rarely transcendent — receivers is no longer enough. Super Bowl teams are lit with outside playmakers.

Gone are the days of teams like the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks winning without top-tier downfield threats.

Two of the league’s four best receivers played in the Super Bowl earlier this year — Cooper Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase. A third, Davante Adams, played in the divisional round.

The fourth is Samuel, who played in the NFC title game. Another top-10 receiver, Tyreek Hill, played in the AFC title game. Stefon Diggs, also a top-10 receiver, played in the divisional round for the Buffalo Bills.

In fact, if you use Pro Football Focus as a guide to the best receivers in the game, only one of its top 10 receivers didn’t make the playoffs.

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And while defense still matters and a running game is helpful and the quarterback is still (almost) everything, no team has made a deep run recently without at least one game-changing option down the field.

Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in 2021 without a top-10 receiver but had one just outside the list — Chris Godwin — and another who is one of the best 20 in the game — Mike Evans. In fact, those receivers are partly why Brady chose the Buccaneers when he left the Pats in 2020.

For as good as Brady was in New England, even he couldn’t win without playmakers running down the field as offenses began to rule.

The game has changed. Outside of the quarterback, receivers are the most important spot on the field.

Just ask Brady. He might have won an eighth Super Bowl if his Buccaneers hadn’t struggled to slow Kupp in their divisional playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams. Though even if Tampa Bay had pulled off a comeback against the Rams, it would’ve faced Deebo in the conference title game.

San Francisco’s star playmaker took handoffs and returned punts as well — amassing almost 1,800 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns last season. Against the Rams in the conference championship game, he caught four passes for 72 yards, scored a touchdown, and ran seven times for 26 yards.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Almost every one of these top receivers had a top quarterback throwing to them.

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Shouldn’t the Lions worry more about finding their future Hall of Famer behind center?

Sure, but unless team president Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell think that quarterback is in this year’s draft, then it makes more sense to use the No. 2 pick on a defensive player and try to package the No. 32 and No. 34 pick in a deal for Samuel.

He’s the same receiver, by the way, who put up all-pro numbers with Jimmy Garoppolo as his quarterback. And Jared Goff is every bit as good as Garoppolo, if not better in one crucial way: downfield throws. Goff is also more durable.

Holmes told reporters last week that he and the franchise’s brain trust had discussed the possibility of going after Samuel.

“We discuss every player that could become available,” he said. “Anytime a player becomes available, anytime a player is being discussed on the trade market, we do have discussions. We leave them in-house.”

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As well they should. No need to reveal their strategy.

But they understand what a player like Samuel could do. That he’s young enough to fit the timeline of the rebuild. That he’s talented enough to supercharge the rebuild. That today’s NFL demands dynamic and relentless playmaking to ascend to its highest level.

That even the best quarterbacks in the league no longer win big without one of the best receivers in the league by their side. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen may end up as all-timers, but they look like that in part because they’ve shared a huddle with Hill and Diggs.

The line of scrimmage still matters, of course. Defense still matters. Yet the NFL is a sport of cycles and trends. Right now, receivers rule, and one of the very best in the game may become available soon.

The Lions have the capital to make a play for Samuel. There should be no hesitation if they get the chance.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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