Looking Ahead: Lions have strength at WR

The dominance of the Lions passing game in 2011 was predicated on quarterback Matthew Stafford's right arm, but the Detroit's group of receivers -- namely No. 1 target Calvin Johnson -- played an essential role. Lions beat writer Mike Mady evaluates the receiver position going into the off-season ...

The 2011 season flashed images of progression, promise and potential for the Detroit Lions before culminating in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Now, the Lions brain trust is fully entrenched in the offseason, where they will take appraisal of their roster and determine the best means of improvement while operating within the league’s salary cap restraints (a number that is expected to be in the neighborhood of $120 million).

Over the next few weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at the Lions and hypothesize on what their future plans may be. 

Wide Receivers

Starters

The Lions were the fourth most prolific offense during the 2011 regular season, and that success was predominantly achieved through the air.  

The dominance of the Lions passing game is predicated on quarterback Matthew Stafford's right arm, but the Detroit's group of receivers – namely No. 1 target Calvin Johnson – play an essential role.    

The group starts with Johnson – a 6-5, 236-pound receiver with best-in-class strength, speed and leaping ability.  

Johnson is entering the final year of his contract and, after a 1,681-yard, 16-touchdown campaign, he will command a hefty contract (north of the eight-year, $120 million contract signed by Larry Fitzgerald before the start of the 2011 season).  

If the Lions fail to sign Johnson to a contract extension prior to the 2012 season, the status of his contract will be an oft-repeated story throughout the season.  However, the Lions and Johnson are interested in extending the current deal and should have preliminary negations during the offseason. 

It is also worth noting that Johnson is more than a physically dominant receiver – he is also a locker-room friendly figure.  His teammates love him and he has an outstanding work ethic as well as a relentless drive to succeed.  

To see examples of his team-oriented mentality and locker-room popularity one needs to look no further than recent occurrences.  Johnson, who was named a starter in this year’s Pro Bowl, pulled out of the game due to lingering injuries from the season but still made the trip to Hawaii, bringing his peers with him.  Johnson paid the way for his fellow Lions receivers to join him in Hawaii, paying homage to the group of players that worked by his side throughout the year.  

There is no doubt Johnson figures into the Lions long-term plans. 

The No. 2 receiver is Nate Burleson

The Lions used Burleson as the usual target opposite Johnson in two-receiver formations, but also moved him into the slot for three-receiver sets. 

Burleson caught 73 passes for 757 yards and three touchdowns last season, helping take advantage of the double and triple coverages the opposition often applied to Johnson. 

Burleson is an ideal No. 2 or No. 3 receiver for any team that already has an elite target, as he is a team-oriented player with work ethic and skill.  

He is also one of the team’s leaders and is a popular figure within the locker room.  

Burleson is signed through 2014 and is trusted by the coaching staff.  He isn’t going anywhere. 

Rounding out the top three is 2011 rookie Titus Young

The Lions picked Young in the second round, No. 44 overall, in the 2011 draft.  

Young had an immediate impact and became a larger part of the offense as the season progressed, finishing with 48 catches, 607 yards and six touchdowns.  

Young often lined up as an outside receiver in the Lions three-receiver sets and – despite his small stature (5-11, 174 pounds) -- proved to be an effective red zone target.  

The Lions will groom Young to be Johnson’s counterpart and their No. 2 receiver for years to come.  He is signed through 2014 and remains in the team’s long-term plans. 

Primary Reserves

After the Lions top-three, the production in the wide receivers crops takes a significant dive because of the emphasis on the tight ends.  The team's fourth leading receiver was veteran Rashied Davis, who finished the season with four receptions for 63 yards.  

Stefan Logan – who is a return specialist – and Marcus Stovall are the team’s other receivers and they finished the season with one catch a piece (although Logan had nine carries).  

All three players have expiring contracts.

Logan is the most likely to return, as he can embody multiple roles.  In addition to being the team’s top punt and kick returner, he also covers punts and kicks.  He also can play receiver and running back – although he doesn’t spend much time with the offense. 

The Lions most likely will be interested to retain Logan, but only at a reasonable price.  The Lions don’t figure to pay much more than the minimum salary for him. 

Davis is a veteran receiver who can also is capable of filling multiple roles.  In addition to playing receiver, Davis has the ability to return kicks and is a regular on both coverage units.  He also played some snaps at defensive back in emergency situations, although the Lions would prefer to avoid that.  

Davis will be 33 before the 2012 season and the Lions might opt for a younger player to fill his role (which is primarily on special teams).  

Maurice Stovall is also set to become a free agent and it is unclear if the Lions intend to re-sign him. He was an enticing prospect due to his size (6-5, 220 pounds) but he didn’t find himself on the field with the offense very often. 

Stovall, like Davis, is primarily a special teams player.  His size may compel the Lions to retain him but he isn’t a sure bet to return.     

Summary

The Lions top three receivers are set in stone for 2012, with injury representing the only potential for change.  

Johnson is a bonafide superstar, Burleson has some good football left to offer and Young will only improve in the coming years.  

The Lions other receivers figure to fill out roles on special teams. The team will have to fill two or three receiver spots on the team and may look to simply retain last year’s group. 


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