Curtis A. Clark. 15th August, 2005 - 10:11 pm
Pretend you are a corner back, a nickel corner back. Your job is to come in and stop the other teams third receiver. You are suppose to be versatile and able to stop lower echelon slot receivers.
Now imagine you are playing against the Detroit Lions. It?s 1st down and you are called to go in the game. That?s 1st down, not third. You lineup opposite a college All American, top 10 pick, that was at one time the best receiver in college football. Here?s the crazy part, that is the Lions 3rd receiver, it?s also their number 1, and their number 2. This is not going to be your game. No matter who you cover he is going to be 6?2 or taller, with great hands, and body control. No matter who you cover, you are going to get beat.
Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams should scare the hell out of every team on the Lion?s schedule. They are quite possibly the most talented group of young players, at one position, ever drafted by the same team. They encompass the 2nd, 7th, and 10th overall picks in the NFL?s last three drafts. They represent three players all considered the number 1 overall talent at their position in the NFL draft at one time or another. They represent three players all favorably compared to Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, on the field, not off. College expert Jay Bilas had all three of them considered top 3 NCAA talents during their respective drafts.
If Roy Williams would have entered the draft in 2003 he would have been drafted 2nd, ahead of Charles Rogers. Mike Williams would have been drafted ahead of Roy Williams in 2004 if he would have been deemed eligible. In 2005 Mike Williams was rated the number 1 overall talent by Jay Bilas, but somehow fell to Detroit at 10. He was taken after fellow receiver Bralen Edwards due in large part to missing a full year of football from NCAA suspension.
So the Lions lucked out more than anyone could imagine these last three drafts. They got higher rated players that they didn?t believe would be available in each draft. In fact if you throw late 1st round steal Kevin Jones and second round linebackers Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman, they have been extremely lucky.
Some say it was a bad move to use three consecutive 1st round picks on the same position. The Lions however could not pass up Mike Williams talents at pick 10 in 2005. With the injuries that have surrounded the receiving unit in years past, GM Matt Millen needed not just depth, but talented depth. If injuries occur, Joey Harrington wont be hung out to dry with no talent at receiver for the 4th year in a row.
The Lion?s have not had a healthy receiving core in 3 years. This year they go in with more depth and health than they have had since Herman Moore, Johnny Morton, and Brett Perrimen lined up together. Also the addition of veteran Kevin Johnson makes the unit deeper than ever. With newly bulked up Charles Rogers, and Roy Williams surgically repaired ankle (minor surgery), the unit is healthy to start the season. All this makes for an exciting group that can stay effective in light of injury.
The real question is not the talent, but the experience. Rogers is in his third year, but with only 5 regular season games under his belt. Roy Williams played an ineffective second half in 2004 due to injury, limiting his effectiveness and learning curve late in the season. Mike Williams has been away from football, due to an NCAA ruling in the Maurice Clorrett case, for a full year. So combined the three heralded receivers have only 10 or so games of fully healthy NFL experience.
What they do have in top end NCAA experience and loads of talent under their belts. The hope is with that limited experience and the pre-season, the receivers will have enough of a grasp to be able to take advantage of their incredible skills. Receiver is one of the few positions in football where you can step right in with limited NFL experience and make an immediate impact.
No corner or safety is going to out jump any of the three. No Corner is going to out muscle the big targets of Roy and Mike Williams. Very few corners can stay with Charles Rogers deep. And last seasons miracle catches of a healthy Roy Williams are still fresh in the minds of Detroit fans. These talents should help a struggling Lions offense and scare just enough safety?s into playing deep. That will Free last seasons second half stud, Pro Bowl alternate, Kevin Jones. Jones?s talents should help the receivers as much as the receivers should help Jones. leaving defenses off balance and vulnerable to the Lions high powered skill position players.
The Lions are using this preseason to see just how much of their playbook they can cram full of three receiver sets. Last year it was between 20 and 25 percent. This season look for that number to jump into the 40?s. With the remaining 50 some percent seeing a good mix to keep players fresh.
The hope is that big receivers Roy and Mike Williams are capable enough blockers to be used effectively in motion coming back to the line. If defenses use nickel to stop the Lions pass catchers, they will have to contend with Roy or Mike using motion to check man or cover defense. If the corner comes back towards the line with the receiver, not much will stands between Kevin Jones and the edge. Just a corner being blocked back to the middle by a big strong receiver.
Defenses will have to shift to compensate for this advantage. Ted Tollner, the Lions Offensive Coordinator, will have to take advantage of loose linebackers looking to help protect against runs on the edges. That will leave the middle open and start a cycle of adjustments that should give the Lions great advantages if they can recognize them.
The opportunity to have a high powered offence is their for Detroit. Ted Tollner will need to be significantly more aggressive than his predecessors with this group of young talent. The receivers especially, stretching the field and opening the middle. Scaring defenses and setting the tempo cannot be overstated in the NFL.
Detroit has really gone away from this in the last 5 seasons. This year is their chance to be the next greatest show on turf. Making defenses second guess any gamble they are thinking of taking. If the Lions beat them once early when they gamble, it will dictate the momentum of the whole game.
Rogers especially will be counted on to beat teams deep when defensives decide they have had enough manhandling at the hands of the Williams?s and Kevin Jones. When defenses gamble blitzing, challenging Kevin Jone?s blitz pickups, Rogers will be the deep man in single coverage. When defenses try to overpower the Williams?s blocking for Jones off of motion, Rogers will be the main guy off the audible that can take advantage of the gamble.
While Rogers will be the lighting rod, Roy Williams will be the number 1 target. Harrington has had more in game snaps with Roy than any other receiver. Williams can play outside or slot, and will be utilized in the angular speed of the West Coast short game. He proved to be a number 1 guy last year in his first 5 games, this year he needs to be the most consistent of Lions receivers.
Mike Williams will be used to shore up the Lions poor red zone proficiency. He is a giant target (6?5, 220) that should win just about any jump ball that comes his way. He will be required to learn both Rogers and Roy Williams routes, as he will be both players primary backup. Though not a starter outside of the 3 receiver set, Williams will see as much time as most starters in the league. By bouncing around formations he will also be able to take advantage of defenders not knowing is tendencies.
Can the Lions take advantage and coach these kids up to recognize their mismatches and strengths? Can Harrington deliver unlike in years past? These along with youth stand in the way of this talented trios dominance. But with steady backup Jeff Garcia pushing Joey Harrington and Mariucci?s decision to hand play calling over to offensive coordinator Ted Tollner. The Lions are taking steps in the right direction. It could be sooner rather than later that this nightmare of nickel corners becomes a reality.
In their first preseason game Roy Williams had 3 catches for 36 yards, Charles Rogers had 2 catches for 28, Mike Williams had 2 catches for 28, and Kevin Johnson had 3 catches for 17 yards. Joey Harrington was an impressive 9 for 9 throwing the ball, but was sacked twice on successive plays. The starters only played 2 series together. Starting Fullback Cory Schlesinger will miss 6 to 8 weeks with a broken leg suffered in game. That will mean more 3 receiver sets for the offense
Curtis A. Clark
Resident Writer for Detroit Sports