What other message does this move send, trading the team’s leader in receptions (44) and yards (517) to another team in the conference — to a team that, frankly, the Lions could have been in wild-card contention with?
It just doesn’t seem logical, unless the message the Lions are really sending is that they are playing more for the future than for the final nine games of this season. They are one game out of first place in the NFC North, with games at Minnesota and Chicago over the next two weeks. Sure, you couldn’t move Tate if you lose both of those games, essentially knocking yourself out of the playoffs. But it isn’t like the Lions would have gotten nothing for him had he left in free agency after the season.
The compensatory pick program would have brought Detroit back a midround pick (perhaps a third-rounder) a year later than the one the Lions got now from the Eagles. Yes, he was in the final year of his contract. And yes, he is on the wrong side of 30, an age that usually brings with it a lot of concern in the NFL.
Is that one-year difference in pick enough to trade away one of Detroit’s most consistent players? One of its locker room leaders? One of the players who made the most connection with the broadest scope of Lions fans?
No, it’s not. And it’s why things are even more confusing about Detroit’s decision.
Trading Tate makes little sense on so many levels. He has been the longest-tenured active receiver with Matthew Stafford, his short-to-medium-range security option with exceptional hands and an uncanny ability to make defenders miss. He also turns screens into medium gains and short passes into big plays. In fact, no receiver has been better on screens. Since 2010, Tate leads all NFL receivers in yards (981), receptions (142) and yards after catch (1,265) on screen passes.
He was also reliable. He never missed a game in Detroit, played through injuries and always showed accountability when things went wrong. Tate had the type of personality a locker room needs, one that knows how to win and with enough panache that people follow him.
The Lions players, based on Twitter reactions, appeared to be taken off guard by it. And they should be. Their careers are finite. And the front office, by doing this, seems to be signaling — at least a little bit — that winning this season might not be as important as the future. This a week after looking like they were buyers at the deadline, putting together a team to compete for that elusive NFC North title by acquiring nose tackle Damon Harrison to shore up the biggest weakness the Lions have, stopping the run. Remember, it was Tate who bought Harrison a box full of goodies for his locker when he arrived.
That’s how happy Tate was for Harrison to be in Detroit — and how much he potentially thought Harrison was a missing piece to a winning puzzle. Now, that same guy is headed to the defending Super Bowl champions — frankly a place where he has a better shot to win by his presence alone.
Detroit still has a good receiving corps. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. are deep threats who can stretch the field. The Lions have a better run game now, featuring Kerryon Johnson, than they have had during Tate’s entire tenure with the club. But the short-to-intermediate routes Tate was known for are going to be run now by one of three (or four) people: tight end Michael Roberts, who is a bigger body but doesn’t have much experience; veteran receiver TJ Jones, who has sure hands but isn’t as explosive as Tate; running back Theo Riddick, who would have to learn somewhat of a new position; or rookie receiver Brandon Powell, who seemed like he might have been Tate’s long-term replacement but will now be put in a very difficult spot if he’s the guy.
Some of those options, particularly Roberts and Powell, have some upside. But none have the win-now pedigree and numbers of Tate.
All trading Tate has done is lead to confusion. Players expressed it on social media. So did fans. Doesn’t make much sense to me, either. But in the absence of an explanation, all that can be wondered from the Lions is what their intentions are for the rest of this season.
Because by moving on from one of their top offensive players, all it is saying is that Detroit, once again, appears to be playing for next year.