I don't mind revealing my initial reaction Saturday when the Detroit Lions drafted Boise State receiver Titus Young with the No. 44 overall selection. Fun for fantasy players, but a luxury for the Lions.
Maybe you thought the same about a team that already counts Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler among its pass-catchers. The Lions, after all, threw for the 12th-most yardage in the league (3,810) last season. Selecting a wide receiver in the top third of the second round, immediately preceding a six-player run that included two defensive backs and three offensive linemen, seemed confusing at best.
With that said, I don't mind divulging my "upon-further-review" reaction. The Lions needed a receiver like Young more than most of us probably realized.
In reality, despite their previously noted weapons, the Lions had one of the NFL's least explosive passing games in 2010. Their team average of 6.3 yards per attempt was the fourth-worst in the NFL. They ranked in the league's bottom third in total passes of more than 20 yards and more than 40 yards. ESPN Stats & Information tracked totals of 30-plus-yard receptions. The Lions didn't have a receiver among the top 20.
Enter Young, who averaged 17.1 yards per reception last season at Boise State and who has been compared by at least one prominent draft analyst to Philadelphia Eagles playmaker DeSean Jackson. Young isn't quite as fast as Jackson, having run an official 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, but he has a similarly shifty 174-pound frame and natural instincts for getting downfield.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he didn't want to "pigeonhole" Young as a "field-stretcher," but the Lions clearly believe he brings that dimension.
"[We] have a very defined role for what he can do for this football team," Schwartz said. "He's an explosive player. By explosive, I mean by 20-yard gains or more. [He is] natural catching the ball. Probably one of the most natural receivers in this draft. [He has] skills to go out and create separation. He fits very well with the other pieces that we have on offense, so we were really excited to get him into this spot."
Many of you might wonder why Johnson hasn't filled that role in recent seasons. After all, he entered the NFL in 2007 with an inhuman combination of a 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame and a 40 time of 4.35 seconds.
Opponents can read that scouting report too, and it's been relatively rare when Johnson hasn't faced some form of a bracket coverage that keeps a safety over the top and discourages deep passes to him.
Under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the Lions have focused more on getting the ball in his hands -- wherever the defense will allow it -- rather than forcing low-percentage deep shots. As a result, Johnson has caught 144 passes in 29 games over that span, but only seven of them have gone for more than 40 yards.
The receivers the Lions have paired him with since 2009, Bryant Johnson and Burleson, are both intermediate-range targets at this point in their careers. As you can see in the chart, Lions wide receivers combined for eight receptions of 30 or more yards in 2010. For context, consider that the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings finished tied for the league lead with 15 on his own.
Bryant Johnson might not return in 2011, but the Lions envision Young stepping in as their No. 3 receiver and going places that neither Calvin Johnson nor Burleson has taken them.
"The guy is an explosive playmaker," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "He's a stick of dynamite. He's got speed. He's got great hands. ... He's got a role on offense right now. He's probably going to have the opportunity to step in as our third guy. We haven't had great production from that spot in the last couple of years and we feel that Titus is the guy that can step in and solve that problem for us."
That's a role Jackson filled to perfection when the Eagles drafted him in 2008, and in three seasons no receiver with at least 100 receptions has averaged more than Jackson's 18.3 yards per catch. With anywhere close to that kind of impact, the Lions' offense would progress from dangerous to feared. It's nice to be able to drive the ball downfield, but all really good offenses have the ability to score quickly and from any point on the field.
Along the way, I think Lions fans are going to enjoy getting to know Young -- who wanted no part of suggestions that he will be a "poor-man's DeSean Jackson."
"I've never been another man's nothing," Young told Detroit-area reporters. "I've always known that I've been Titus Young from Day 1. My mother named me Titus Demetrius Young. She didn't name me nothing else and I know what I was. I know who I am and I know as people are going to compare you to people but God made me to be me and he made me to be Titus Demetrius Young. You can compare me all you want to, but I'm no man's poor man.
"My initials my whole life has been T.D. Young; so it's been Titus Demetrius Young -- 'Touchdown' Young. So I just feel like football is just me ever since I was born and now I can go play some more football with Detroit."
Most teams would love a speedy downfield threat. The Lions, as it turns out, needed one.