ALLEN PARK, Mich. – He started out as one in a group of three. Then it dropped to two and by the last month of the season, Kenny Golladay was all alone. The second-year Detroit Lions receiver had other players around him, other receivers who flashed potential at times.
But considering what the Lions started the 2018 season with – Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate – and the position they ended at, with Jones on injured reserve and Tate in Philadelphia, the receiving corps definitely had a different look than what was anticipated.
The 25-year-old went from a piece of the passing offense to a key part of any time Matthew Stafford threw the ball.
“I don’t think the moment has been too big for him,” Lions receivers coach Robert Prince said last month. “His personality, he’s very low key and whether we said, ‘Hey, Kenny, you’re our number one,’ or we didn’t say that, I think he would take the same approach.
“Although he’s quiet, he’s very confident in his abilities, as are we. He’s not ready to back down to anybody playing.”
His game showed that in 2018. Golladay had a breakout season, catching 70 passes for 1,063 yards and five touchdowns. He could be the Lions' No. 1 receiver for years to come.
His numbers in yards and yards per reception (15.19) put him in the top 20 in the NFL. Considering he’s still learning, that gives the Lions real hope he might be one of the top receivers in the league before too long.
Golladay wouldn’t say whether he felt he was a top 10 receiver – statistically and in target share he wasn’t – but the confidence is there. Despite his quiet nature, he plays with swagger, routinely ripping the ball away from cornerbacks and coming down with contested catches.
“Some games I didn’t have a lot of catches or yards and I wasn’t used in that game but we still won,” Golladay said. “It’s got its pros and cons, but I definitely think I’m up there with some of the good receivers. I just have to continue working.
“I’m still young. This is my second year and I definitely feel like I’m able and capable of doing what all those guys are doing.”
He wouldn’t pinpoint one thing he needed to improve on – instead falling back on that he just needs to continually improve – but he said he focused on making his body healthier this season. That worked, as he played in every game but the season finale.
And what he was being asked to do changed as the year went on. He started the season as part of perhaps the top receiving corps in the NFL. Then he became part of a duo with Jones that he compared to Superman and Batman (minus the one movie where they fight).
Then Jones sustained a knee injury and went on injured reserve. So his personal goals and his own role – the Lions moved him in-and-out of the slot, particularly after Tate was traded to the Eagles – started to shift.
And it changed how he expected his season to go.
“I wasn’t expecting to be by myself, you know. So that plays a factor in it as well,” Golladay said last month. “You have to think, I was with two other guys. One guy left and now there’s just two of us and then he gets injured. And now it’s just me.
“So it’s different. So the goals that I did set I kind of blew those out the water. Which is good, fine with me. It just gives these coaches an opportunity to see what I can do by myself without the help of other guys around me.”
What the Lions saw was a receiver they took in the third round of the 2017 draft blossom into an all-around threat. He caught short passes and deep routes. He had two 100-yard games after Jones’ injury and had at least 50 yards receiving in all but one game after Jones went out.
He struggled at times to separate from defensive backs, but it wasn’t an issue. Golladay, using his catch radius, height and leaping ability, came down with contested catch after contested catch. And he stole balls from corners, too. He scoffed when asked if separation was an issue, pointing to his numbers. Because, he said, in the NFL being open doesn’t always happen anyway.
“I think he gets open,” Prince said. “The thing with Kenny is even if a guy is on him, with his length, he can be open.”
And Stafford could throw him open, too, or put the ball in a spot where only Golladay could catch it – essentially making it an incompletion or a high-level Golladay grab.
After two seasons, Detroit knows what it has in Golladay. The Lions may have a new offense next year, but they also have in Golladay and Jones two receivers around whom they can build.