Lions left with mishmash at wide receiver

December 6, 2012

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Sometimes a player’s opportunity comes from a team’s desperation.

The Detroit Lions started the season with a four-man rotation at receiver of Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles — a superstar, a nine-year veteran and two promising second-round draft picks.

That group now consists of Johnson, Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie and Kris Durham — the star, two newcomers added in late October and a practice-squad player just elevated to the 53-man roster.

The Lions also have re-signed Michigan native Lance Long, who was released nine days before the season-opener.

It’s a much-different look for quarterback Matthew Stafford entering Sunday’s game at Green Bay.

“We get three days of practice before the game; that’s all we need,” Stafford said, somewhat tongue in cheek, of the recent wide-receiver overhaul.

As Thomas put it, it’s been a “whirlwind” since his arrival from Jacksonville in a trade five weeks ago.

"It's a week-to-week league," he said.

When Burleson went down with a broken leg on Oct. 22, it was supposed to open the door for Young to take on the bigger role that he supposedly coveted.

When Young’s bad attitude put him in the doghouse in recent weeks, it was supposed to be just what Broyles needed for a breakout.

And now that Broyles is out after suffering a knee injury last Sunday, the decimation of the receiving corps behind Johnson is complete.

The opportunity is there for anybody with two hands and a Lions’ helmet.

“I think the Madden Curse affected everybody else except for Calvin,” Burleson said, referring to Johnson’s cover shot on the popular Madden video game.

So just who are all these new faces?

• Thomas, a fourth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2009, came to Detroit as the No. 4 receiver and already has moved up to No. 2.

He had become expendable in Jacksonville because of the emergence of two younger receivers.

Thomas, a 25-year-old speedster, played in college at Arizona. He has three catches for 16 yards and one touchdown in five games since joining the Lions. He also carried the ball on two end-around plays for 20 yards.

"I'm always in Matt's ear, trying to figure out what I did and what I didn't do, what I need to do," Thomas said. "It's a work in process. Hopefully, we can get something going. I'm excited."

• Robiskie, a second-round pick by Cleveland coming out of Ohio State in 2009, has played in only two games since getting signed as a free agent two days after Burleson’s injury. He had been released earlier in the season by Jacksonville.

Robiskie, 25, runs good routes and has good hands, according to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

“It’s been kind of learning on the fly, but I definitely feel more comfortable each week,” said Robiskie, whose father, Terry, is a receivers coach for Atlanta. “That’s how the game goes. You just have to stay ready. You never know when your number might be called.”

• Durham, 24, is a former roommate and teammate of Stafford’s at Georgia. He’s currently living with Stafford.

Asked if they talk game plans over dinner, Durham said with a laugh: “We do, but then Matthew’s girlfriend tends to get mad so we have to stop that.”

Durham, who is 6 feet 6, was a fourth-round pick by Seattle in 2011. He suffered a shoulder injury last season and got released this year by the Seahawks at the end of training camp. He’s been practicing with the Lions since early September.

"It's a big opportunity," Durham said. "I've been working my butt off to try to get to this point. I'll bring whatever they want ... special teams, offense, catch 10 balls, catch no balls, block for Calvin, block for the running backs. I don't really care. I just want to win."

It's a refreshing approach after all of Young's antics.

• Long, 27, given the nickname “The Vanilla Gorilla” during training camp, also brings an extremely upbeat approach to the locker room.

Long, an undrafted player out of Mississippi State in 2008, has been working out and helping train young athletes in recent months at the Premier Training Center in Macomb, Mich.

“I haven’t watched a football game since I was released,” said Long, who appeared in a total of eight games for Arizona and Kansas City in 2009. “I was frustrated. I feel like I put my best foot forward.”

He did, but it just didn’t work out at the time. Now, however, he’s getting another shot to try to live out a dream of playing for the hometown NFL team.

Put all these guys together, and it's a mishmash unit. If Johnson was getting triple-teamed before, imagine what it’s going to be like now.

“We expect to operate at full capacity on offense," coach Jim Schwartz argued. "All those guys have credentials. All those guys can make plays.”

Center Dominic Raiola added: “They’re not chopped liver. Like we always say, 'Next man up.' Fill in and do the job. I expect those guys to step up.”

All each of them wants is a chance, and now they’re going to get it.