A coach has been hired. A staff is being filled out. The Detroit Lions' offseason and planning for the 2014 season is officially here.
To start that process, we will look at each position group over the next two weeks, analyze what worked and what didn’t before projecting what could happen between now and training camp in 2014, which is only a mere seven or so months away.
Today the series continues with wide receivers.
The good: Calvin Johnson had another standout season, catching 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. He finished eight yards shy of being the first receiver in NFL history to post three straight 1,500-yard seasons. He also had the second-highest yards after contact per reception rate in the league, behind Seattle’s Golden Tate. In nine games, Nate Burleson had 39 catches for 461 yards and showed he can still play at age 32. He also caught 73.6 percent of the passes Matthew Stafford threw to him -- the second-best mark among qualifying receivers in the NFL. Both Kris Durham and Jeremy Ross emerged in different ways. Durham showed he could be a contributor on the NFL level, catching 38 passes for 490 yards and two touchdowns. Ross only caught five passes, and had three touchdowns -- one receiving and two on special teams. He also became a dynamic returner who could be a long-term option both in the slot and returning punts and kicks.
The bad: Start with the drops. Lions receivers dropped 21 passes -- second worst in the league ahead of Cleveland, with 24. The receivers also had a 6.0 percent drop rate, second worst in the league. Their reception percentage of 55.2 was seventh worst in the league, although that has to do with Stafford as much as the receivers. Durham’s 45.2 reception percentage was third worst among qualifying receivers in the league, better than St. Louis’ Chris Givens and Cleveland’s Greg Little. Durham’s drop rate of 7.1 percent was tied for sixth worst among qualifying receivers -- but ahead of Denver’s Wes Welker.
The money (using 2014 cap numbers from Roster Management System): Johnson is third on the team when it comes to his cap number at $13,058,000 -- 10.49 percent of the team’s cap right now. Burleson is entering the final year of his contract at a cap number of $7,531,645, but that is almost assuredly coming down after he said he would be willing to restructure his deal to stay with the Lions. Ryan Broyles has a cap number of $1,003,227. Combined, the three players are at $21,592,872 -- or 17.35 percent of the Lions' cap. This does not include projected cap numbers for Ross (likely the three-year minimum) and Durham if they choose to retain them. Detroit will be adding rookie numbers to this as well after the draft.
What Caldwell might favor: In his three seasons as a head coach in Indianapolis and last season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, Caldwell did not have a single receiver that contributed on the roster under 6-foot. In those four seasons, he only had one short receiver -- in 2010, Brandon James was 5-foot-7 -- and James only played in three games. Just something to keep in mind when Caldwell assembles this roster. Another thing to look at: Caldwell has typically kept four receivers active on his rosters throughout his tenure at Indianapolis and Baltimore. This year’s Lions team usually kept between five and six receivers and finished the season with three receivers on the practice squad.
Potential cuts: Burleson should be sticking around as long as he and the team can come to terms on a restructured deal. He had a good enough season and reliable enough season that he should be back. Broyles could come down to his health. He is rehabbing a ruptured Achilles -- the third straight season his year has ended with an injury.
Draft priority: High. Very high. Depending who is available at No. 10, it is very possible the Lions use their first pick on a wide receiver. If Clemson’s Sammy Watkins falls to them, the Lions should sprint to the podium to draft him. Other early options include Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and USC’s Marqise Lee. If the Lions go a different direction in the first round, it is possible Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, Penn State’s Allen Robinson or Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews could be available. Clemson’s Martavis Bryant, at 6-foot-5, could be an intriguing option as well beyond the first round. Depending on what happens with Burleson, Detroit could also look at a slot receiver at some point and South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington, Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders, UCLA’s Shaq Evans and Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon could be intriguing later-round options, although Ellington (5-foot-9) and Gallon (5-foot-8 1/4) don’t fit the profile of what Caldwell has looked for in the past in terms of height.
Numbers in this post were culled from ESPN Stats & Information and Roster Management System.