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Why Lions' receivers provide optimism for next season

FILE- In this Dec. 3, 2015, file photo, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) stretches but is unable to catch the pass while defended by Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) during the second half of an NFL football game in Detroit. The Lions will face the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski, File)

Although the Saints’ defense is not the best measuring stick, the quality of the Lions’ pass catchers was on display on Monday Night Football. Both teams are eliminated from playoff contention, shifting the focus to their outlooks for 2016. The Lions’ have some issues on the offensive side of the ball—not least on the offensive line—but few teams can boast the kind of playmaking threat in the passing game that Detroit can provide. Specifically, the wide receivers and running backs are amongst the most difficult to cover in the league.

Contrasting styles by complementary pieces

Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate have significantly contrasting styles, but both are among the best wide receivers in the NFL. Johnson is currently our 11th overall receiver, with 72 catches for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. The threat he poses downfield is almost unmatched. On deep targets, Johnson has nine receptions from 26 passes for 298 yards, two touchdowns, and no drops. In contrast Tate has been targeted just seven times on deep shots. That’s just 6.3 percent of his total targets, way down in comparison to the 21.8 percent of Johnson’s targets that are 20+ yards downfield. Tate is yet to catch a pass from those downfield shots.

Although Tate (28th in our WR grades) lacks the ability to threaten defenses vertically, he more than makes up for that with his ability in the intermediate game. Of his 720 yards, 488 have come after the catch. Only 193 of his yards have come on passes more than 10 yards down the field. The commitment to feeding Tate the ball is a wise strategy; his 23 broken tackles lead all wide receivers this season. Opposite him, Johnson has broken just a single tackle in 2015, and has accumulated less than a third of his yardage on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Although they have contrasting styles, Detroit’s duo of starting receivers complement each other perfectly.

Backfield threat

To go with the threat posed on the perimeter, the Lions have a group of running backs who are outstanding in the receiving game. It all starts with Theo Riddick, who holds the best receiving grade amongst all running backs this year. He has numbers of 69 catches for 605 yards, three touchdowns, two drops, and 27 broken tackles. No other back can better Riddick’s 27 broken tackles in the passing game, and he has the third-best drop rate (2.82 percent) at the position.

Although only a bit-part player in comparison, Ameer Abdullah has flashed serious potential in the receiving game, too. He owns the 27th best grade in that facet of play, with 17 grabs for 146 yards, one touchdown, one drop, and six broken tackles.

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