Detroit’s Passing Game: Can It Thrive Without Calvin Johnson?

Calvin Johnson’s sudden retirement left the Detroit Lions having to rebuild their wide receiver corps. But the time to fill holes in the draft has gone and the time to sort what the team has has come. Justin Twell evaluates the Lions receivers to see what to expect without Calvin Johnson.

The Detroit Lions wide receiver corps might be the most interesting positional group to watch in 2016. As you may have heard, Calvin Johnson retired in the offseason – somewhat surprisingly – after nine years in the NFL.

In comes Marvin Jones, previously of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Anquan Boldin, who spent the last three seasons in San Francisco – both of whom should provide a boost to this receiving group alongside the returning Golden Tate. But the question remains: How will the Lions passing game fare without Johnson – and can the new additions really make up for this loss?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Golden Tate

Arguably now the team’s number one receiver, much will be expected of Tate this season. Moreover, if his production in Detroit to this point is anything to go by, then Lions fans should feel comfortable with his potentially taking of the number one receiver mantle.

Of course, things will be different now without Johnson lining up on the other side, so what can we expect of Tate this year? In three games that Johnson missed in 2015, Tate caught 24 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns, proving that, albeit in a small sample size, Tate can be very productive as the go-to receiver.

One of Tate’s strengths is his ability to find and utilize space, and the Lions offense, under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, will need to continue to put Tate in positions where he can work effectively in the space given to him. In 2015 Tate finished 8th in the NFL in yards after the catch (YAC) with 547 yards and he was very effective working across the middle of the field, finding holes in zone coverage, often between linebackers and safeties.

Below is an example from Week 6 against the Chicago Bears. Watch as Tate – working from the right side of the formation – executes a simple crossing route from right to left as the Bears defense bites on the play-action. But it’s what Tate does after the catch that shows his skill set, as he is able to make two players miss on the sideline, creating a 22-yard gain on the play.

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Against the then St. Louis Rams in Week 14, Tate shows the ability to go a little deeper down the field and is able to find a soft hole in zone coverage in the middle. Even though the ball is thrown slightly behind him, he still makes an adjustment with nice body control to make the catch while taking a hit immediately afterward, picking up 16 yards in the process.

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Tate is still in the prime of his career and his numbers have been very solid the last two seasons. We should see similar, if not better, numbers in 2016 as the Lions continue to play to his strengths.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Marvin Jones

Marvin Jones enters this season with big shoes to fill as Johnson’s indirect replacement. A very solid number two receiver during his time in Cincinnati, Jones figures to be a big part of the Lions passing game and he’ll certainly get enough targets to showcase the talents for which the Lions brought him in during free agency.

Of course, we haven’t seen nearly enough of what he has done in Cooter’s offense, though he has been targeted early and often during the Lions’ first two preseason games. Early indications point toward a solid relationship with quarterback Matthew Stafford.


What we do know of Jones is that he possesses the speed and ability to get down the field and the hands to catch anything thrown his way. In 2015, Jones had only two drops out of 103 targets – a 1.9% drop rate – better than the likes of Johnson (2.7%) and Odell Beckham Jr. (3.2%).

Here in Week 2 against the San Diego Chargers, Jones demonstrates the ability to use his speed to get down the field and make big plays. The former Bengal runs a simple vertical route and is able to take advantage of free safety Eric Weddle coming upfield to pick up the underneath crossing route, leaving Jones with a clear path to the end zone.

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Jones has had a few durability issues in his career, but he has looked solid in preseason and did play 16 games in 2015. As the team’s deep threat heading into the season, Jones can stretch the field, which will in turn help Tate work effectively underneath.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Anquan Boldin

Thirteen-year veteran Boldin was a nice signing for the Lions and should complement Tate and Jones nicely. Coming in as the likely number three receiver, Boldin continues to show he is still a valuable asset in this league – it’s surprising that no other team snapped him up before the Lions did.

Boldin will likely see a decent number of snaps, primarily in third-down situations. His ability to find the first-down marker will be key in helping the Lions move the ball effectively in the passing game. His physical style of play allows him to be effective in man coverage and, while he’s never been the quickest receiver, he has great body control.

We’ve already seen Boldin demonstrate how effective he can be on third down for the Lions. Lining up in the slot here in the Lions’ first preseason game on a 3rd and 6, up against press man coverage, he’s able to use a feint to cut across the middle of the field and make the catch. He is then able to drag a defender 10-yards farther upfield, gaining 30 yards on the play.

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Expect Boldin to line up in the slot primarily, acting as a dependable security blanket for Stafford in 2016.

So what can we expect from the Lions receiving corps in sum in 2016? With Johnson no longer around, the new additions of Jones and Boldin can expect to see the Lions’ share of the ball (Pun intended!). Johnson was targeted 150 times last year so those targets have to go somewhere – perhaps to tight end Eric Ebron,or running back Theo Riddick who had 80 receptions last season.

To be successful, however, they will need to be efficient and less reliant on the big play ability Johnson brought to the offense. This is a solid receiving group and one that can be effective, particularly in the short to intermediate routes with plenty of yards after the catch to be had.

When you lose a future Hall of Famer, production will suffer, but the Lions did a good job in bringing in new additions and Lions fans can trust Cooter and Stafford to bring a more balanced and, ultimately effective passing game in 2016.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his articles on the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, the potential for a breakout season from the Chicago Bears’ Eddie Goldman, the Bears’ draft fits, training camp battles in Green Bay, and being an NFL fan on another continent.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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