Lions 2022 training camp preview: Establishing a WR hierarchy

Pride of Detroit

As we inch closer and closer to the Detroit Lions 2022 training camp, we have brought back our roster battle series, with the goal of previewing each position group heading into the fall. Throughout this series, we will overview the position group, identify established players, and discuss those individuals fighting for a role.

This is the third installment in the series and will focus on the wide receiver group. If you missed either of the first two articles, highlighting quarterbacks and running backs, make sure you check them out:

Setting the table

At this time last year, we thought the biggest question about the Lions’ wide receiver group was: who would be the Lions’ WR4? Boy, were we wrong. Turns out, it wasn’t just the team’s depth that had question marks, but the presumed starting roles were far from settled as well.

Desperate for stability, Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes kept active in the wide receiver market, trading for Trinity Benson and claiming KhaDarel Hodge off waivers ahead of the season, then claiming Josh Reynolds off waivers in mid-November.

While those roster adjustments helped, the most significant change in the wide receiver room was the accelerated development of rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. His rapid rise in production not only elevated his role in the final months of the season but changed the entire dynamic of the position group.

Entering the 2022 offseason, the Lions knew they had a player capable of taking over a game in St. Brown, re-signed his 2021 co-starters, Reynolds and Kalif Raymond, then added potential WR1 DJ Chark in free agency, as well as another potential WR1 Jameson Williams in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Additionally, Benson, Quintez Cephus, and Tom Kennedy returned to Detroit in 2022, and the team also added three undrafted free agent rookies, Kalil Pimpleton, Josh Johnson, and Corey Sutton.

Roster construction

St. Brown, Chark, Williams, Reynolds, and Raymond are the clear top options at the position and will make up WR1-WR5 when healthy. But full health isn’t a guarantee with Williams, as he is still in the recovery process from a January ACL injury.

That means if the Lions opt to keep six wide receivers—as is anticipated based on last season—there is likely one spot open on the roster, with another potentially available if Williams is not healthy and starts the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list.

The Battleground

Trinity Benson was thrown into the fire early in 2021, as the Lions were scrambling for help at receiver. But his quick immersion to the NFL game proved problematic for the young receiver, he struggled to keep up, and his role regressed throughout the season. In the offseason, Benson sought advice from coach Dan Campbell on how to improve his game, and the extra work paid off.

This spring he looked sharper, prepared, confident, and has captured coaches’ attention. Here’s what Campbell had to say about Benson’s performance in minicamp:

“Speed. Speed, speed, speed… The speed is really showing, and his hands have been—he’s catching the ball well, he’s plucking. So, I think that’s his major skillset, and look he’s pretty tough. He’s pretty tough. I think he can help us on special teams. I think he can be gunner, and so if we can feel that speed, and he continues to catch the ball, and do what he’s done in spring, and then he comes out and competes at a gunner on special teams, I think that serves him well, serves us well.”

Here’s wide receiver’s coach Antwaan Randle El discussing Benson’s spring:

“You can see now he’s taken it in, he’s getting stuff down, he has limited his mistakes and he is making plays. And it’s good to see. Everything that we thought we were getting out of him is really showing up. He’s not just flashing – it’s over and over again. And we figure it’ll keep going.”

Quintez Cephus was drafted by the previous regime and doesn’t fit the mold of the receiver the Lions have been targeting over the last two offseasons, but every time an opportunity arises, he has met the moment.

“Cephus he just he shows up,” Campbell said. “He shows up in these competitive settings. That’s a good thing.”

Cephus worked his way onto the 2021 roster with his consistency and competitiveness. When starter Tyrell Williams went down in Week 1 with a season-ending concussion, it was Cephus who stepped into his role. Over the next month, Cephus would start and produce, until a Week 5 collarbone injury ended his season. Fortunately, Cephus has fully recovered and was back on the field this spring doing what he does best.

“His spring this year is better than last year,” Randle El said of Cephus. “But he’s also a guy that when the pads come on, he’s a little different. Meaning, like he shows up a whole lot more. He’s just different with his pads on. He’s a bigger guy, more physical.”

While stylistically Cephus is very different than the other receivers in the room, that could work to his advantage because they simply don’t have a receiver who can do what he does. If he is indeed in a battle for one of the last spots in this group, he’s shown what he can do on offense, but he will need to expand his special teams contributions more.

Tom Kennedy stuck on the roster in 2021 because he had earned the trust of Campbell, but despite the problems at receiver, he only saw double-digit offensive snaps one time before Week 13. As a backup slot receiver only—and with St. Brown firmly established—Kennedy’s path to the NFL roster is a tough one. Not only will he have to build on what he did last season, but he is also facing some dynamic competition.

Kalil Pimpleton, a Muskegon native who played at Central Michigan, is very much a traditional slot receiver who possesses elite quickness. Pimpleton flashed in the spring, but he looks like he still needs some polish as a receiver before he is ready to contribute. That being said, his ability to contribute as a returner could be his best path to a roster spot.

Corey Sutton is a deep threat who will need to flash downfield and on special teams in order to make some noise in the fall after a quiet spring. At 6-foot-1, he has WR-X potential, which is a potential long-term need for the team and will help his appeal.

Josh Johnson is a WR-Z/slot who finds ways to separate despite his below-average athleticism. He didn’t stand out much in the spring, but when the pads come on, some guys can level up their game. Can he? He’ll need to start by limiting drops and work from there.

The path to the roster will be challenging for the UDFAs (Pimpleton, Sutton, and Johnson) but through the spring, Randle El took notice:

“Pimp (Pimpleton) has been where he needs to be when he needs to be there. And the opportunities he’s had, he’s been making those plays… All three of those cats, they’ve been doing pretty well. Josh (Johnson) and also Sutt (Sutton), making plays when they have those opportunities. But like you said, it’s competitive so they gotta keep on chomping at the bit and see how this thing pans out.”

Discussion/Projection

Erik: As a reminder, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept St. Brown, Chark, Reynolds, Raymond, Cephus, and Benson, while allocating Williams to the PUP list.

So Jeremy, have your feeling about Williams’ availability changed, or do you still think he is going to miss some time early in the season?

Jeremy: Nah, as I said in my open thread last week, my current prediction is that the Lions are going to play it super safe with Williams and hold him until after the bye week. There’s no need to get him on the field right away, and they seemed to know when they drafted him that he’d miss some time. I know you see it a bit differently, so since I made my case here, why don’t you make your case here.

Erik: I completely agree with you in the fact that they’re not going to push him along too quickly because he is too valuable to their long-term plans. That being said, with his Amon-Ra-like work ethic, if he gets his strength back sooner than expected—which isn’t unheard of with an ACL injury—Campbell has said they will want to get him on the field:

“Look, we want to get him out there as fast as possible, and is it crucial? It is crucial, but not until he gets his strength up. He needs a lot of strength development in that body, his lower extremities, his legs, his knees, his everything. So, until he’s able to stabilize himself, and really get some strength that we feel good about to where he can protect himself, he can protect that knee, and he can compete, and compete at a high level we’re not going to put him out there.”

Maybe it’s just a gut feeling or wishful optimism on my part, but I think he will start training camp on the PUP and could be activated in August. If that happens, he will bump a player from our projection, meaning only one of Cephus or Benson will make the 53-man roster.

At this time, which one of the two would you keep?

Jeremy: Right now, it’s Cephus. He has both proved the most on Sundays in the NFL and provides a more unique skill set. If the Lions are down an “X” receiver, he can step in. If they need slot receiver relief, he can fill in. The Lions have said all offseason they want to move their pieces all around the formation, and Cephus is capable of doing that. He may not have been hand-picked by this regime, but he undoubtedly impressed this coaching staff last year, whereas Benson proved he needs plenty of seasoning.

If Benson can carry over some of that positive play from minicamp into training camp, we’ll have a healthy competition on our hands, but I think Cephus has the early advantage.

The one thing I didn’t really talk about, though, is special teams, and that will almost certainly play a factor. Who do you like better on teams right now, and will that be the ultimate decider if Detroit eventually has to choose between the two?

Erik: I’m with you on Cephus having the leg up on Benson for WR6, but if special teams ends up coming into play, he could be in trouble. As a starter in four of the five games he played in 2021, Cephus didn’t really play any special teams (just two snaps) and as a rookie in 2020, 76 of his 91 snaps came on the kick return unit. That won’t cut it this year, especially if Benson—and his 4.4 speed—is in the mix for one of the gunner roles.

For now, I’m penciling in Cephus ahead of Benson, and am hoping that when the pads come on in the fall, this battle is as entertaining as we anticipate.

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