Is Lions' Kenny Golladay on track to become one of the NFL's top wide receivers?

In three seasons, Kenny Golladay has gone from a mid-round pick to Pro Bowler, and from third receiving option in the Detroit Lions' offense to the unquestioned No. 1.

Golladay, who turns 27 on Nov. 3, heads full steam toward the prime of his career -- and also enters his contract year. If the Lions do as expected and sign him to a long-term deal, he’ll end up getting paid like one of the top wide receivers in the NFL.

That's because, as offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell suggests, Golladay's fourth-year improvements and potential on-field performance could place him in similar territory. This adds another level of pressure, another layer of goals for Golladay, who was the NFL’s touchdowns leader last season (11) despite playing half of 2019 with David Blough and Jeff Driskel at quarterback.

“There's specific things we're talking to him [about] that can take his game to the next level,” Bevell said. “You really want him to be thought of with those upper-echelon guys like [DeAndre] Hopkins and [Michael] Thomas -- players who really dictate to the defense how they have to cover. Sometimes that's where that guy gets double-covered; he's worried about by the defense all the time and in turn, he helps his teammates.

“But when you're in that go-to moment and everybody knows Kenny Golladay is getting the ball and everybody knows, and he still makes the play, that's where we're trying to get him to, to be that dominant-level player."

Is Golladay really on that trajectory? Can the 6-foot-4, 214-pound high-point artist who had to create his own highlight tape to help him transfer from North Dakota to FBS Northern Illinois really become one of the top three receivers in the game?

There are a number of factors involved, from his quarterback to Bevell and his offense to the prior paths those top receivers -- Thomas, Hopkins and Atlanta’s Julio Jones -- took.

As rookies, Golladay had by far the worst numbers of the four: 28 catches for 477 yards and three touchdowns, but there were valid reasons. The Lions played in a more ball-control offense under Jim Bob Cooter and Golladay was the clear No. 3 option behind Marvin Jones and Golden Tate.

He had a little over half the receptions of Hopkins (52) and Julio Jones (54) and nowhere near the totals of Thomas. Detroit, though, did use him as a deeper threat, and he turned in a higher yards-per-catch number than all but Jones.

Golladay’s big jump came in his second season, still playing in Cooter’s offense but having more opportunity due to his own developing skill, the Lions trading Tate to Philadelphia at midseason and Marvin Jones suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 10 against Chicago. He had three games of 90 or more yards after he became the clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver and garnered more attention as a riser in the league.

He also missed one game, which could have put his numbers in range of the second seasons of Julio Jones, Hopkins and Thomas. If you take his averages per game and extrapolate them over a full 16-game season, Golladay would have had 75 catches for 1,134 yards and either five or six touchdowns (he had a 70-1,063-5 stat line).

Compare that to the second-year numbers of Hopkins (76-1,210-6), Jones (79-1,198-10) and Thomas (104-1,245-5) and Golladay is getting closer in an offense that by the end of the 2018 season had Stafford, himself and little else around it.

In January 2019, Cooter was out, Bevell was in. Last season, the offense looked promising, with Bevell taking more deep shots and with a group that was productive when Stafford was healthy. Even with Blough and Driskel in an offense not quite as equipped to throw downfield, Golladay managed his best season -- 65 catches, 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns.

This with teams knowing he was going to be the No. 1 target.

An encouraging sign for Golladay’s growth was his yards per reception: his 18.3 yards average is much higher than Hopkins (13.7), Jones (14.1) or Thomas (11.2) in their third seasons. Jones missed 11 games in 2013 -- his Year 3 -- so it’s tough to use him as a comparison point, but statistically both Hopkins and Thomas lapped Golladay in Year 3. Hopkins had 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas had 125 catches for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns.

Of course, the quarterback situation didn’t help. In the eight games prior to Stafford’s injury, Golladay had four 100-yard games and saw fewer than seven targets only once; after the Stafford injury he had one 100-yard game and saw seven or more targets just four times. His yards per target also plummeted: With Stafford he averaged 10 or more yards per target in five of eight games; without Stafford he was over 10 yards per target in just three of eight games.

In all, if you take his with-Stafford numbers and project them over a whole season, theoretically Golladay would have had a 70-catch, 1,280-yard, 14-touchdown season -- which would have taken him from seventh in yards in 2019 to fourth. Still not quite in the Hopkins-Thomas level, but not as far off from his actual numbers as one might have thought. Consider, too, Stafford and Golladay were just starting to find a rhythm at the time of Stafford’s injury. Three of Golladay's final four games with Stafford last season saw him with over 120 yards receiving.

So where does this leave Golladay?

He is now entering his second year in Bevell’s offense -- one that should continue to feature explosive plays with Golladay as the top deep option, building off his 16.75 career yards per reception and his 9.6 yards per target (both numbers he eclipsed last season). He also should have a healthy Stafford back and other offensive options such as Marvin Jones and tight end T.J. Hockenson to keep opponents from thinking about double-teaming him too often.

So can Golladay reach the Julio Jones/Hopkins/Thomas territory? Would it be enough? Some of that will come down to how the Lions play and how much Bevell gets him the ball.

In Year 4 of their careers, Jones had 104 catches for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns. Thomas had 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. Hopkins had a down year -- 78 catches, 954 yards, four touchdowns -- but rebounded in Year 5.

Golladay has never had more than 119 targets in a season. Thomas had never had fewer than 121 -- and twice has had more catches (125 in 2018, 149 in 2019) in a season than Golladay had attempts thrown his way. Jones has had 128 or more targets in all but one of his healthy seasons. Hopkins hasn’t seen fewer than 127 targets in any season since his rookie year. So they are also getting the ball more.

Based on how Bevell talked and what his potential expectations are, it’s possible Golladay could see an uptick in targets, although history would not suggest it. In Bevell’s time as a coordinator between Seattle and Minnesota, he’s just twice had receivers with more than 120 targets in a season: Sidney Rice with 121 in 2009 and Doug Baldwin with 125 in 2016.

So for Golladay to truly reach the upper echelon Bevell talks about, Bevell might have to buck his own history and make Golladay even more of a focal point in the offense. Combined with a healthy Stafford, it’s a possibility Bevell’s words could end up coming true.

However, a lot of things have to happen for that to become a reality.