Despite Matt Millen’s frequent attention to the position high in the draft, wide receiver remains a position that is somewhat unsettled. The competition will be extra “tight” this season – as in extra tight end. With Linehan moving the Lions into more of a two TE offense, there will be less pressure to keep extra wideouts on the roster – especially those who don’t play special teams. While it is pretty clear that Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson have roster spots locked up, that only the leaves the competition even more intense for the remaining 2-3 spots. The Lions already released the recently signed Marko Mitchell to make way for Jason Fox (OT – fourth round pick) to be signed to a three year deal.
Today, lets look at Dennis Northcutt and Bryant Johnson – last year’s “big additions” to the WR Corps. Both players were disappointing for different reasons. Lets start with Northcutt.
Northcutt was acquired in trade from the Jaguars for once promising, but severely injured safety Gerald Alexander. He made a decent play or two for the Jags, but was mostly a backup/roster filling type player. Personally, this is still my least favorite trade of the Mayhew administration thus far, so I try not to let it color my perception. Still, the Lions ended up very thin at safety last season, playing street free agents at points and he could have been useful.
Northcutt, on the other hand, was just a hair above awful. After being injured early, he missed essentially the entire ifseason. When he did finally make it on the field, he did not impress either in the slot or in the return game — both of which were supposed to be his strengths. Dropped balls and lack of focus were more common than receptions, even though he ended the season with halfway reasonable stats. He ended the year with just 35 catches for 357 yards and 1 TD. He also had two fumbles, one of which was lost. While a veteran presence and savvy is always appreciated by coaches, Northcutt is very much on the bubble – his roster spot will depend on which youngsters (if any) make a push and/or improve to the point where their potential outweighs Northcutt’s production.
Bryant “Stone Hands” Johnson was a perpetual hair-puller for Lions Fans all season long. Just like Northcutt, Johnson missed almost the entire ifseason and training camp — only his was due to a “golf cart accident”. While it would be convenient to blame his season or drops on lack of timing or training in the offense, that can be debated quite a bit. Apparently he looked good in practice, and decent in the bit of preseason time he played, but as soon as the lights went on during the season, its as though he lost focus. There were numerous times fans would cheer as he was open in the right spot for the first down or a big gain only to drop the pass. Still, he made about as many as he dropped and put up 35 receptions for 417 yards and 3 TD’s.
Johnson did not perform up to the level needed in order to draw coverage from Calvin Johnson which made him a failure in the role the Lions signed him to as a #2 WR. However, his knack for getting open can’t be denied. IF he can get his focus back on catching the ball on key downs, he could be a serviceable #3/4 WR just like he was in Arizona. I’m not sure about his special teams credentials, which may hurt him. If he can be a solid part of the kick coverage and return teams, his spot may be more secure.
For both Johnson and Northcutt, their first season with the Lions can only be described as disappointing. Their roster spots will depend as much on them correcting last year’s shortcomings as it will what kind of impression the young players pushing them make on the coaching staff. At this point Johnson seems more secure than Northcutt, but it’s possible both of them could be looking for new teams at some point this ifseason.