Niyo: For Lions' new cast of pass-catchers, opportunity to shine is well received
Allen Park — It’s too soon for narratives when it comes to this edition of the Lions.
There’s a new general manager, a new coaching staff and new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. There’s also a new quarterback for the first time a dozen years, and nearly 50 new faces on the 90-man roster as Dan Campbell’s team effectively wraps up its offseason program Thursday with a final minicamp practice.
But even if it’s true that everything old is new again with this NFL franchise, there’s something to be said for the opportunity that’s knocking here for one group in particular.
The Lions’ new-look receiving corps is arguably the biggest question mark on a team full of them. But if you believe Campbell and some of those players with their hands raised in Allen Park, the answer we’ll get this fall just might surprise everyone.
“Look, I think that’s what all of this is about right now, to get a feel of who we have in this building and what they’re capable of and who they are and how we use them,” Campbell said. “That’s what this is right now is a starting point. I’m not worried. They’re not worried about the narrative out there. I’ll tell you this, there are guys out there that we’ve been impressed with.”
That’s what you’d expect him to say, of course. And, frankly, given how low the expectations for the Lions’ wideouts heading into this season, it’s probably not saying much.
'Hungry young men'
No position on the roster has undergone a bigger overhaul, following the free-agent departures of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, among others. In fact, the only wide receiver on the current roster who caught a pass for the Lions in 2020 is Quintez Cephus, last year’s rookie fifth-round pick.
Only two NFL teams are spending less of their salary-cap dollars on the position than Detroit this season. (Those would be Pittsburgh and Atlanta, now that the Falcons have traded veteran Julio Jones to the Titans.) And not coincidentally, Pro Football Focus ranked the Lions’ receiving corps 31st in the league heading into the 2021 season, ahead of only Houston.
Still, it’s worth remembering that you don’t always get what you pay for in this league. And sometimes you get more than you bargained for, which is clearly what Lions GM Brad Holmes is banking on with this mix of unproven veterans and unheralded youngsters.
“There's no really established guy that's in that room,” said Anthony Lynn, the Lions’ new offensive coordinator. “But I think we definitely have a lot of hungry young men in that group, because they see opportunity.”
That’s the sales pitch, if nothing else. And thus far, it seems to be generating the kind of buy-in the coaching staff hoped.
“Yeah, for sure, the excitement’s there as far as competition goes,” said Victor Bolden, a former practice-squad player who has been one of the surprises on the field in an abbreviated offseason in Allen Park. “At this level, you welcome competition. And for it to be an open opportunity, it just excites everybody.”
Quarterback Jared Goff among them, apparently. He’d already gotten some work in with some of the Lions’ receivers in sessions he hosted out in Los Angeles earlier this spring, and he's planning another before training camp starts in late July. But these last few weeks at the team’s practice facility have ratcheted up the intensity, with no entrenched starters and roster spots clearly up for grabs.
“I think you notice that,” Goff said. “There are your veterans like Tyrell (Williams) and Breshad (Perriman), who have been doing it for a while. But everyone else for the most part is relatively new and young, and battling for spots. It's fun to see it and it's really cool to see them work.”
Whether or not any of this will work come September is another matter altogether. But if nothing else, while the Lions may lack high-priced talent at the position, they’ve got a highly incentivized group, at least.
Cephus and this year’s rookie fourth-round choice, Amon-Ra St. Brown, are the only wideouts under contract beyond this season — not including the undrafted free agents brought in this spring in Jonathan Adams Jr., Javon McKinley and Sage Surratt.
Size and speed
Even the projected starters on the outside — Williams and Perriman — are on one-year prove-it deals, owing in part to their own injury histories. Williams missed all of last season in Oakland after suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder in training camp, while Perriman hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since his rookie year with Baltimore in 2016.
But each boasts a size-speed combination that the Lions find intriguing, as they try to reignite Goff’s young career and complement some of the other skill-position talent here with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson and a dynamic backfield tandem of D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
“I guess the disadvantage would be if you couldn't bring in guys who help you out,” said Antwaan Randle El, the Lions’ receivers coach. “But we've done that, in terms of bringing in guys who can not just fill roles, but come in and play and be productive.”
At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Williams is a unique downfield threat, a player who has averaged 16.1 yards per catch over his six-year NFL career, including two seasons for Lynn with the Chargers. Perriman (6-1, 215) ran a 4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day back in 2015, and Holmes, then the Rams’ scouting director, calls him “probably the fastest guy his size that I’ve seen running a 40."
He’s also a guy whose position coach has seen turn that speed into production in the NFL. Randle El was a first-year offensive assistant in Tampa Bay when Perriman — the son of former Lions standout Brett Perriman — joined the Buccaneers in 2019. The former first-round pick began the year as the No. 3 receiver behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but finished it as a starter with three consecutive 100-yard games, including a three-touchdown day against the Lions.
Now he’s eager to do more of that with an expanded role in Detroit.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of big plays," Perriman said. "That’s really what I’m about, and that’s when I’m having fun. So it’s a huge opportunity.”