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Lions make case for NFL’s best receiver trio – NFC North

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Robert Prince puts the blue screen up every day at the start of his meeting with the Detroit Lions wide receivers. Listed are goals — some numerical, some not — that the Lions set out as possibilities for this season.

It’s there as a constant motivator, a reminder of what they believed they were capable of. Every day, before they talk about game plan or scheme or the opposing secondary for the week, the list is there for consumption.

“We’ve had things on the board talking about fundamentals and talking about effort and talking about knowledge,” Prince said. “Just as a room said, ‘Hey, what are our goals this year? What are our team goals? What do we want to do, accomplish in the receiver room?’

“Not necessarily numbers, how many catches and all that kind of stuff. But what can we do to help this team get further. That’s something we start the meeting with.”

This is the first time Prince has done this in his five years as receivers coach in Detroit, coming after a suggestion from first-year head coach Matt Patricia. And it’s a not-so-subtle reminder of how talented the room is and how good these receivers can be.

The trio of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate ranks among the most productive receiving corps in the league. Might be the deepest as well. The Lions are just doing it without the nationwide attention or a megawatt star like Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr.

They are, to a man, fine with that. It fits what they are trying to do, who they are trying to be, and the balance that they’ve created over the past two seasons.

“We’re reminded because we came up with what we want to be,” Tate said. “We want to lead the league in every category and that’s something before each meeting, RP puts up there, but we just keep our head down and keep working.”

While the Lions may not want to talk about numbers, there is a chance Detroit could become a rarity: a team with three 1,000-yard receivers. Tate has 33 catches for 431 yards (on pace for 106 catches and 1,379 yards). Golladay has 27 catches for 428 yards (on pace for 86 catches for 1,369 yards) and Jones has 16 catches for 241 yards (on pace for 51 catches and 771 yards). Jones is admittedly off-pace now, but he was on pace for 932 yards prior to his one-catch, 8-yard game against Green Bay in Week 5. Considering he had eight games of 80 yards or more and was a 1,000-yard receiver last season, he could return to close-to-1,000 numbers quickly.

Only the Rams and Falcons have three individual receivers with more yards than Jones, the third of the Lions receivers. But the Lions have two receivers in the top 10 in yards (Golladay, Tate), the top 20 in yards per catch (Golladay, Jones) and receptions (Tate, Golladay), the top 15 in yards after catch (Tate, Golladay), and all three are tied for seventh in touchdowns (three each).

It puts them in the conversation for the best receiving corps in the NFL, something Tate believes the Lions have.

“I really … I do,” Tate said. “I do.”

His case?

“I think talent, depth, look at the stats that we’re putting up,” Tate said. “We’re a good group. Honestly, I think it starts with our run game. Our run game has been better and it’s opening up for us.”

The run game could help the receivers reach the not-so-impossible 1,000-yard goal as well. The production of Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount has made Detroit more difficult to defend. While it could take some targets away from the receivers, it might also open up possibilities for bigger gains — and more effective play-action passing for Matthew Stafford.

Having three 1,000-yard receivers in a season isn’t an impossibility. The Rams have three receivers on pace for at least 1,100 yards.

Five teams have done what the Rams and Lions are chasing, although none since the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston in 2008. Ten other teams have had three players with 900 yards receiving in a season, the last being the Patriots in 2014.

Of the 15 trios, only five were comprised of only wide receivers: Arizona in 2008, Indianapolis in 2004 (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley) and Washington in 1989 (Art Monk, Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark) all had three 1,000-yard receivers. The Run ‘N’ Shoot Oilers of 1990 and 1991 with Haywood Jeffires, Drew Hill and Ernest Givins, had at least 900 yards each in back-to-back seasons.

So the Lions know what’s possible, what could be attained. They just don’t ever discuss it unless asked.

“I’m not going to say it’s something we put on the board, like, three 1,000-yard receivers,” Jones said. “But when you look at the Broncos, like four or five or six years ago; look at the Falcons when they had Tony [Gonzalez], Roddy [White], all that stuff, you obviously know. You know what can happen.

“But at the same time, right now, in this moment, it should be the least of our worries. If we go out there and make those big plays, everything speaks for itself.”

The Lions receivers, for now, care more about the moment. About the individual games and the plays they’ve been able to make within them. With Golladay and Jones on the outside and Tate, sixth among NFL receivers in yards after catch, in the slot, Detroit’s receivers become an almost impossible matchup. All three receivers have led the team in receiving in at least one game. Tate and Golladay have already hit the 100-yard mark at least once.

This possibility existed a year ago, when the four returning receivers in the room all gathered at the start of the 2017 season. That’s when they got their first real look at Golladay, then a rookie from Northern Illinois.

Golladay’s debut last season, when he scored two touchdowns, including one on a diving catch, eliminated any questions about his potential. Then they all came back this year, and all seemed to be better in one form or another.

“Nobody was complacent,” said TJ Jones, the team’s fourth receiver. “Everybody just wanted to get better, whether it was one tiny thing or something big you wanted to correct from the season before. Nobody was OK with complacency or doing what we did last year.

“The standard was set to get better every year, and that means in every category, whether it’s catches, route running, blocking. It was just a good sense of coming in ready to work.”

They had familiarity with Stafford, so there was little concern they’d be able to play well even after early struggles connecting on deeper passes. But what makes this receiving corps work is that there are no true stars in the room — although Golladay’s profile is certainly rising. It means there are no egos to gently massage. No player demanding the ball.

The three of them look around, understand what they have, what they can be, and go from there. The message on the board in the front of the room reminds them, too, of what the goal is.

“We understand there might be a game where I get double- or triple-teamed or Marv gets triple-teamed or doubled and next thing you know, Kerryon is having a big day,” Tate said. “Kenny is having a big day. TJ is having a big day and the next week might be something completely different.

“Pick your poison is what I think with this group and we understand that. The ultimate goal is to win.”

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