What Can We Expect from the Detroit Lions' Wide Receivers in 2018?
In recent years, if there's one thing we have come to expect from the Detroit Lions and their offense, it's that they will pass the ball and amass yards. Quite a lot of them, in fact.
In 2017, the Lions had the second-highest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL (1.76) in notching their ninth consecutive season with at least 600 pass plays. Their handsomely paid quarterback, Matthew Stafford, finished third in the NFL in passing yards with 4,422, providing quite a lot for the team's money. But that's nothing new as Stafford put together his seventh consecutive 4,000-plus yard season.
If we assume the Lions' offensive philosophy remains the same in 2018 -- a fair assumption given their retention of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter -- it is logical to look at the players who will be catching passes from Stafford and asking ourselves what we can expect from them in the season to come.
Throughout this article, we will touch on our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can learn more about in our glossary. In summary, NEP tracks the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team side being adjusted for strength of opponent. A three-yard reception on 3rd-and-2 is wildly different than a three-yard reception on 3rd-and-4, and NEP helps to account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their teams' total over the course of a season.
Using NEP and a slew of other numbers, how should we treat the receiving trio in Detroit?
2017 in Review
The Lions' wide receivers combined for 3,024 receiving yards in 2017, the second-most of any team in the NFL. Golden Tate's 1,003 yards marked his third 1,000-yard campaign in four seasons with the team, and Marvin Jones's 1,101 yards brought him the first 1,000-yard season of his career.
On a per-play basis, Jones was far and away the most efficient of not only this group but the entire NFL. Of the 27 wide receivers to see at least 100 targets, only Tyreek Hill (0.59) had a higher Target NEP per target mark than Jones' 0.58. At 0.98 Reception NEP per target, no qualifying wide receiver eclipsed Jones' production when hauling in a target.
While Marvin was a picture of efficiency, Tate was propped up by volume. Tate saw the 13th-most targets with 136, but posted the 10th lowest Target NEP per target with 0.24. His Reception NEP per target was only 0.62, the 8th lowest. His Success Rate, the number of plays that positively impact a player's NEP, was 67.39% -- 27th out of 27 wide receivers with at least 100 targets.
While T.J. Jones and Kenny Golladay both saw less than 50 targets, they were quite efficient when targeted. They finished 20th and 21st, respectively, in Target NEP per target among the 112 wide receivers to see at least 30 targets (0.44 and 0.43) in 2017.
While the Lions have made moves that they hope will improve their ability to move the ball on the ground -- signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Kerryon Johnson -- we have already established that the Lions want to pass the ball first.
With the departure of former first-round draft bust Eric Ebron, 86 targets from 2017 are suddenly available. And both Michael Roberts and Luke Willson fall well below the top tier, so it is logical to assume that the wide receivers -- particularly those manning the slot -- will see the majority of the Ebron targets. It's hard to imagine the Lions jamming many more looks the way of Tate, so surely Marvin, Golladay and T.J. will split them up among themselves.
Or will they?
As impressive a season as Jones had, from a counting stats and efficiency standpoint, it is worth noting that his season can effectively be looked at as two separate events.
|Marvin Jones||with Golladay||without Golladay|
When Golladay was on the field, the Marvin Jones' role fell off considerably, to the tune of 5.05 PPR points a game. But T.J. Jones experienced a similar dropoff.
T.J. began to see his role in the offense dwindle down the stretch. After playing on at least 65.6% of the Lions snaps between Weeks 4-9, Jones never played more than 55.8% for the rest of the season. In the final three games of the season, he played a combined 32 snaps. He was another player who saw most of his volume when Golladay was out of the lineup, averaging 5.6 targets per game when Golladay sat out compared to 3.5 when Golladay played.
Marvin Jones made his bones last season down the field, averaging an impressive 10.3 yards per target and a ridiculous 18.0 yards per reception. But Golladay wasn't far behind Jones, with 9.9 yards per target and 17.0 per reception. Should he see a majority of the targets vacated by Ebron, and continue to produce at a similar rate, would it stun anyone if he started to see more of Marvin Jones' targets in 2018?
From a financial standpoint and looking toward the future, the Lions can clear nearly $5 million in cap space by releasing Jones in the 2019 offseason. Because of that, there's a chance the team will want to begin the post-Marvin era early, especially if Golladay can remain healthy and produce in year two.
While Golden Tate will undoubtedly be force-fed (especially given Tate's hope that a contract extension will be on its way) and continue to serve as the team's high-volume, low-efficiency guy, there is a strong possibility of a sophomore breakout from Kenny Golladay. So long as he and Marvin Jones don't cancel each other out as viable fantasy options on the outside, he and Tate are the top pass-catchers to buy in Detroit.