(This is the fourth in a multi-part series by Ty Schalter evaluating Detroit's off-season needs on the offensive side of the football. Ty has penned "Old Mother Hubbard" the last few years, an idiom to restocking a franchise that was once left bare - ed.)
Finishing up the Old Mother Hubbard series, post-draft, seems anticlimactic. However, there's plenty of offseason left (maybe too much), and this cupboard isn't done being restocked. To that end, we dig into the Pro Football Focus grades for wide receivers:
In this case, "Pass" refers to their grades in the passing game (i.e. their receiving performance). "Run" refers to their performance when running the football (on reverses, etc.). Unlike tight ends, run blocking and pass blocking are consolidated into "Blocking," as receivers rarely pass block. The bright orange line represents Brandon Lloyd, the wideout who turned in the best overall grade. His plus-24 is predicated almost entirely on his plus-23.4 receiving grade (the other dimensions have little variation, and therefore little impact on the overall grade). Should we be surprised that Darrius Heyward-Bey is bringing up the rear? His minus-14 overall grade is the worst of any NFL wideout.
There's a little thing in research called "confirmation bias," where you seek out objective facts that confirm your preconceptions. That the Lions drafted a speedy receiver with their second pick suggests the team saw a need that had to be filled. I simply have to acknowledge this: I'm curious to see why the Lions thought they should pick a wideout so high, especially one whose game superficially matches that of Nate Burleson. I'm going to do this straight, but keep an eye out for signals that there's a need to stretch the field.
The Lions' WR corps is the most divergent unit on the team. Most of the other positions' players are clustered around the thick black AVERAGE line, with only a few strong deviations in either direction.
However, Calvin Johnson was PFF's third-best graded receiver in 2010, with a very strong plus-14 overall grade. That was powered by a plus-14.5 receiving grade, and only having a single penalty called against him all year. He also had a (very) slightly above-average rushing grade.
Surprisingly, Megatron's blocking grade was awful. He turned in a minus-3.1 blocking mark, well below the NFL average of minus-1.27, and ranked 94th out of 110 receivers. We don't play Megatron to block, but you'd think a dude who has half a foot and sixty pounds on most corners could do better than that without breaking a sweat.
Statistically, Calvin caught 77 of 131 passes thrown at him; his percentage of passes caught is actually a little below-average at 58.8 percent (NFL average: 59.6). Part of this is definitely due to system and quarterbacking. The top receiving percentage guys are typically slot receivers in pass-first, multi-WR offenses featuring quality quarterbacks; Megatron is a No. 1 wideout in a conventional offense driven by very inconsistent quarterback play last year. Still, I expected Calvin to be better than the mean at getting to, and hauling in, footballs.
Perhaps it's in the way they use him? Megatron was thrown at once every 7.8 snaps, exactly the NFL average. His yards per reception, 14.5, is definitely a notch above average (13.2). But his touchdowns? Well, his 12 vastly outstrip the league average of four. It was my eyeball observation that the Lions tended to move between the 30s with passes to slot WRs, TEs, and RBs, then take shots at the endzone with Calvin once they got close. I divided receptions by touchdowns and -- yup! Megatron was 10th in the NFL with 6.4 receptions per touchdown (4th with 5.9 if you count the Chicago Robbery). If the Lions were throwing to Calvin, they were often taking a shot at the end zone.
Bottom Line: Calvin Johnson was one of the NFL's best receivers in 2010, despite being targeted the average number of times, primarily in the red zone, by a rotating cast of quarterbacks. If he and Matthew Stafford play all 16 games in 2011, expect Megatron to be No. 1 by a long shot.
The neon-green line a little ways inside of AVERAGE is Nate Burleson, the Lions' second-splashiest free agent acquisition of 2010. Burleson turned in a minus-2.7 receiving grade, which couldn't be offset by his run grade (plus-1.6, tied with Devin Hester for third-best in the NFL), or his relatively clean penalty grade. His very-slightly-below-average blocking performance (minus-1.4) didn't help either.
Burleson's negative grade didn't come entirely from dropped passes, as Brandon Pettigrew's clearly did. Burleson was ranked 56th in snaps-per-drop, with 17.0 (average is 17.6) —- not great, but barely off the NFL median and mean. His YAC (yards-after-catch) was excellent; 18th-best in the NFL with 5.6. He also made a defender miss on a post-catch tackle eight times on just 55 receptions —- the 21st-highest rate in the NFL (6.9 Rec./MT; NFL avg. 10.8).
That is the end of the good news for Burleson who, outside of two great games against the Jets and Dolphins (plus-2.9, plus-3.4), turned in neutral or weakly negative grades the rest of the year (none worse than his minus-1.8 week one; most not nearly that low). Also, despite his well-above-average YAC rate, Burleson could only muster 11.4 yards per reception. Think about that: he ran for an average of 5.6 yards after every catch, but only gained 11.4 yards on an average catch. He caught the ball an average of 5.8 yards downfield! The picture this all paints is of a slightly-below-average receiver who struggles to get open deep, but becomes a genuine threat once the ball is in his hands.
Bottom Line: Nate Burleson proved to be a valuable asset, often getting open short and manufacturing yards in space when there was none to be had. However, he failed to provide a credible threat across from Calvin Johnson, instead carving out a niche in underneath the coverage. "Recepticon" has a future in this offense, but it will be much brighter if he can work in the space created by a legitimate deep threat.
Bryant Johnson is a receiver from Penn State who seems like a really cool guy on Twitter. Unfortunately, PFF's grades are not kind to him. Johnson's minus–13.1 overall grade is second-worst in the NFL, ahead of only Darrius Heyward-Bey. His minus–13.5 receiving grade is at the very bottom. It was only his total lack of penalties that pull him up above Heyward-Bey. His 37.5% of targets caught is also second-worst in the league -- dropping seven passes on just 48 targets didn't help.
Here's one positive tidbit for Johnson, though: his 4.2 catches per missed tackle means he was the third-hardest WR to bring down in the NFL. Should he happen to catch the ball, Bryant Johnson is tough to stop.
Bottom Line: Bryant Johnson struggled mightily to catch the ball in 2010, as he did in 2009. Though his body type and tool set would be the perfect complement to draw coverage away from Megatron and open up space for Burleson, his inability to catch the ball strips him of any credible threat — and of any real chance of returning for 2010.
Derrick Williams is a receiver from Penn State, and another Detroit receiver who seems like a nice kid via Twitter. Williams's commitment to giving back to the Detroit community is as impressive as it is unheralded. Unfortunately, like Bryant Johnson, PFF's graders took a dim view of his 2010 performance. Williams, whose 154 snaps didn't qualify him for the 25-percent cutoff, only saw time in weeks 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, and 13.
His minus-6 overall rating and minus–4.8 receiving rating didn't come from doing a bad job catching the ball. The problem was, he was never open: in 154 snaps played, Lions quarterbacks only targeted him three times. Astonishingly, that's the exact same number of penalty flags he drew (though one was called back).
Bottom Line: Despite being, by all appearances, a great guy and a good teammate, Williams' single reception for seven yards was probably the former No. 1 recruit in America's last as a Lion.
SHOPPING LIST: Though no one identified WR as a need prior to the draft, had I managed to crank this one out I'd have been screaming from the mountaintops about this one, too. Calvin Johnson is a flat-out stud, Nate Burleson is a quality slot ninja, and after that the Lions have two guys who've proven they can't help, and practice squadders like Brian Clark and Tim Toone. The need for a wideout with legitimate downfield speed and NFL hands to go with it was, in fact, desperate — and the Lions may have filled it with second round pick Titus Young.
About The Author
Ty Schalter is a professional geek and family man He regularly converts his undying fandom into words and numbers both for RoarReport com, and his Detroit Lions blog, "The Lions in Winter"