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The Lions Have a Golden Opportunity

Calvin Johnson is gone, but Detroit’s new no. 1 wide receiver has all the makings of a breakout star

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the first season since he entered the NFL in 2009, Matthew Stafford won’t have Calvin Johnson to lean on. Johnson’s ostensible replacement, Golden Tate, is seven inches shorter and 39 pounds lighter, but he’ll be tasked with filling the Megatron-shaped void left in Detroit’s no. 1 receiver spot.

Tate won’t adequately replace the now-retired Johnson — but no one can. George Young’s Planet Theory applies to receivers, too: Fluid, coordinated 6-foot-5, 237-pound dudes that can run a 40 in the 4.3-second range just don’t come around too often.

Except, the Lions don’t need Tate to be an exact replacement, and they’ll use him in a variety of ways. Like Johnson, Tate will line up on the outside at times, but just like Julian Edelman in New England, Doug Baldwin in Seattle, Brandin Cooks in New Orleans, Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City, and a few others, he’ll be Detroit’s go-to guy from all over the field, lining up at the Z (flanker) spot, doing damage from the slot, and even taking a few snaps in the backfield.

Tate won’t match Johnson’s peak production, but if the final eight weeks of last season are any indication, his larger role in the Detroit offense will give Stafford a different — but still dangerous — kind of weapon.

Detroit started the season 1–6, but after replacing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi with Jim Bob Cooter in Week 8, the Lions finished the season 6–3. The offense in particular really took off after the Week 9 bye, as the unit’s DVOA improved by 13.3 percent over the final eight weeks and vaulted up to 11th overall by season’s end. With Stafford’s input, the 32-year-old Cooter revamped the passing game plan. The Lions emphasized quicker, shorter throws to cut down on turnovers, and Stafford completed 70 percent of his passes while throwing 19 touchdowns and just two picks over the last eight weeks. Tate’s excellent hands, explosive quickness, and running back–like ability to make defenders miss in the open field meshed perfectly with the Lions’ new emphasis on efficiency.

The Creator

Tate thrives in space, and he’s among the league’s elite when it comes to creating yards for himself. In the second half of last season, he was targeted on screens 20 times, per the Football Outsiders Almanac, compared to just 11 times under Lombardi. Cooter used Tate on quick slants, rub routes, and short hook routes — all movements that take advantage of his quickness off the line and strong running ability.

You don’t see NaVorro Bowman get juked like this very often.

Tate’s reception numbers jumped after Cooter took over (34 in seven games under Lombardi compared with a team-high 56 over the last nine games), as did his touchdowns (one under Lombardi, five with Cooter). His catch rate (catches divided by targets) — 55.7 percent through seven games — jumped to 83.6 percent with Cooter calling plays. However, with the new emphasis on quicker throws, Tate’s yards per catch dropped (9.35 in weeks one through seven, 8.84 in weeks eight through 17).

Tate finished the season with the fourth-lowest average depth of target in the NFL year (5.8), but he made up for it with an average of six yards after the catch. He finished fourth among receivers in yards after the catch in 2015 (he was first in 2014), and he forced 30 missed tackles, good enough to lead the league for the third year in a row.

Cooter figured out that he could just get the ball to Tate on the outside, and he’d turn it into a big positive gain. On bubble screens, like this one from Detroit’s Week 17 win against Chicago, he doesn’t even need a blocker.

We’ll see plenty of bubble screens in 2016. And we should expect to see the receiver stack: Put Tate behind a bigger receiver or a tight end out wide, throw him the ball, and let his legs do the rest.

The Antidote to Predictability

Last year, Tate said that opposing players were calling out the Lions’ offensive plays before they ran them, a clear indictment that Lombardi’s play calling had become too predictable. Cooter knows he has to eliminate that issue, and we saw glimpses of his efforts to keep defenses off balance by getting creative with the offense’s standard formations. Here’s an end around from Detroit’s Week 14 loss to the Rams.

The Lions even got Tate involved with the Jon Gruden special: Spider 2 Y Banana. Against the Eagles in Week 12, Tate played the role of fullback after motioning into the backfield, and with a play-action fake, Stafford hit Tate, who easily evaded a tackle and literally walked into the endzone.

The Red Zone and Third-Down Threat

As the rise in Tate’s touchdowns suggests, Cooter utilized the receiver in the red zone more effectively than his predecessor. When the Packers are close to the end zone, they use rub routes (a.k.a. pick plays) and quick inside slants with Randall Cobb — and Cooter started to do the same with Tate:

All of Tate’s Cooter-era scores came from inside the 10-yard line. Three came on rub-routes, one on a slant from the wing, and the other on the Spider 2 Y Banana play. Adjust your fantasy rankings accordingly, because Tate could snipe a few short yardage goal-line runs from Detroit’s running backs this season.

Tate was also a frequent target on Detroit’s crucial third- and fourth-down plays under Cooter. Stafford targeted him 20 times on these downs, and he caught 16 of those passes, converting them into a team-high 12 first downs.

The Deep Threat?

Still, as the team’s no. 1 receiver, the short stuff and gadget plays can’t be all of Tate’s game in 2016. Thanks to Johnson’s downfield threat, just three percent of Tate’s targets in 2015 came on bombs (26 yards or more) and seven percent (16–25 yards) came on deep routes, per the Football Outsiders Almanac. But during his time with Seattle, where he played until Detroit signed him in 2014, he got downfield way more frequently: In 2012, 24 percent of Tate’s targets came on bombs and 10 percent on deep routes, while in 2013 those numbers were 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Tate has shown that he’s a capable deep-ball receiver — he just hasn’t had the chance to show it in Detroit. He has quickness off the line, strength to fight through the press, and plenty of speed. Take this play from 2013, against Atlanta’s Asante Samuel: Tate beats the press attempt, gets downfield, then reels in a catch knowing a big hit from the safety is coming.

Here he is against Patrick Peterson that same season: Peterson tries to delay Tate’s route with the heavy jab in press, but Golden beats him anyway on the banana route to the sideline.

Though it’s a very small sample size, the splits for the three games Megatron missed in 2014 are also intriguing: With Johnson out and Tate acting as the de facto no. 1 in the offense, Stafford targeted Tate deep 11 times, completing five passes for 157 yards and a touchdown; he also drew a pass interference call in the red zone (a 31-yard penalty), and a defensive holding call (5 yards). He’s not Calvin Johnson, but he was a problem downfield for opposing defenses. Tate has shown the skill set of a downfield receiver in the past, but he has to prove he’s still got it.

Of course, it won’t all come down to Tate. Signed as a free agent from Cincinnati this offseason, receiver Marvin Jones will be a downfield option, too. Last season, 36 percent of Jones’s targets came 15 yards downfield or more. This should take pressure off of Tate to be the lone deep threat, and the team’s addition of Anquan Boldin will make his life easier on the intermediate and short routes that dominated his target-share last year.

Replacing Megatron will be a team effort, but it all starts with Tate, who will be asked to do more in Detroit’s offense than he ever has. He may not look like a prototypical no. 1, but his skill set should allow him to be effective at all levels for the Lions in 2016.