ALLEN PARK — Golden Tate led the Lions in catches in 2014, and 2015, and 2016, and 2017. Not bad for a guy who played half those seasons with Calvin Johnson, and he shot up all the way to fifth on the team’s career catches list because of it.
He was back at it again this year with another 44 catches for 517 yards and three touchdowns. All are team highs.
So, yeah, the Lions have a bit of a void to fill now that they’ve shipped Tate to Philadelphia for a third-round pick.
TJ Jones and Brandon Powell are the leading candidates to replace him in the slot. Jones is the more experienced option, a fourth-year vet who has played inside and out. He caught 30 passes as Detroit’s do-everything backup last year, but has been used sparingly this year.
He has just three catches heading into Sunday’s game against Minnesota, and was a healthy scratch for last week’s loss against Seattle.
Powell, on the other hand, was up for that game over Jones. He has more athleticism too, and led the Lions in receiving during the preseason.
“I think the best thing about him, once he gets the ball in his hand, he’s kind of a like a running back,” Tate once said. “He could be the YAC king some day.”
But Powell is also an undrafted rookie who has played just one career offensive snap, and has never caught a pass. And at 5-foot-8, he’s locked into the slot.
Of course, those guys also combine for just 48 career catches. Tate has 44 this year alone. So no matter who winds up landing the gig, other players must step up as well if the Lions’ pass-oriented offense is to continue apace.
Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are certainly capable of it, too. Jones lit up the league last year for a career-high 1,101 yards, and led all receivers with 18.0 yards per catch. He got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but notched his first 100-yard game last week against Seattle and scored two touchdowns.
He’s a big-play threat for his body control. Golladay is too, but for his sheer physicality.
At 6-foot-4, he is Detroit’s biggest receiver. He used that size to tower over defensive backs for more 40-yard catches than any other rookie last year. Then he took a step forward this year by racking up 27 catches for 428 yards in the first five games of the season.
That was just 9 yards behind Tate. He was cookin’.
But Golladay has caught just three passes the last two weeks while struggling to handle more aggressive man coverages thrown his way by Miami and Seattle. And with Tate out of the fold, you can bet even more defensive attention is headed his way.
“I definitely think there’s a different attention that gets put on players through the course of the season,” coach Matt Patricia said Tuesday during a teleconference before the trade was announced. “I think we’ve talked about this at length, even really going back to the spring, as far from the standpoint of he’s one of our better players and he’s going to see a lot of different coverages. He’s going to get some different attention based on game plans. It does change week-by-week, but there is a learning process that we’re still going through.”
It’s also possible the Lions lean more heavily on Theo Riddick as a slot receiver, although part of what makes him such a great pass-catcher out of the backfield is the matchups he draws there. If he moved into the slot full time, the matchups wouldn’t be as favorable.
He hasn’t played the last two weeks because of an injured knee anyway.