One of my favorite signings this offseason was when the Detroit Lions decided to ink Golden Tate to a five-year deal worth $31 million after the Seattle Seahawks apparently low-balled him (they had their own cap constraints and felt fine at receiver with Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and now two impressive rookies). It was obvious last season that the Lions desperately needed to find a top WR2 to pair up with Calvin Johnson, who dealt with some more injury issues last season and slogged through most of them, in the offseason preferably one with a different skill-set.
Tate sure isn’t the big beast that Johnson is, but you don’t have to have size to be a matchup nightmare. Although Tate wasn’t the only big addition to the Lions passing attack (there’s a new coaching staff and a talented “joker” in Eric Ebron to help franchise guy Matthew Stafford out), he is definitely the most impressive new piece.
Tate caught 64 passes for 898 yards last season with both being career-highs, but those numbers were lower than expected, especially given the glowing reports surrounding him in training camp. It’s crucial to never take receptions and yards at face value, because these counting statistics depend upon opportunity more than skill. While those are solid numbers, Tate is more than just “solid”, and it only takes a look at how he averaged 14 yards per reception to get an idea of just how explosive he can be.
If I asked you to name the receivers that you think had the most yards after the catch per reception last season, then you would likely list usual suspects like Cordarrelle Patterson or Demaryius Thomas. You would, of course, be wrong, because Tate’s whopping 7.9 yards after the catch per reception led the league. Per the Pro Football Focus, Tate also led all wide receivers with 21 forced missed tackles, so he actually did some of the things Percy Harvin was famous for without, you know, receiving due credit for that sort of playmaking after the catch. Then there’s the added bonus of Tate not being nearly as injury prone and being stronger.
By now you probably know that Tate has some of the best hands in the league, and he dropped just three passes last season to further that point. It’s not often that you find wide receivers who are explosive enough to be among the league leaders in drop rate and YAC, so it takes a truly special receiver to display that kind of mix of two traits that are generally seen as opposites. When you look at Tate’s 14 yards per reception average, it becomes truly mind-boggling to think that 63.6% of that came after Russell Wilson hit him with a pass.
Versatility is important to teams in this league, and Tate displayed versatility to the Seahawks in a few ways. While he most likely won’t return punts for the Lions next year (that should be Jeremy Ross‘s job), he was probably the league’s best punt returner last season. He also showed versatility as a wide receiver, which is more important to both the Lions and other teams around the league. Wilson was one of the most effective deep passers in the league last year, and nobody was targeted more on deep passes than Tate, who, per PFF, received 20 such passes (21.5% of his total targets, which PFF charts at 93). Deep passes are defined by PFF as passes traveling at least 20 yards in the air. Meanwhile, Advanced Football Analytics has him with a 31.3% target rate on deep passes and 99 total targets. Teams also like wide receivers who can play in the slot or on the outside, and it’s clear that Tate fits this role after receiving 22 targets in the slot last season and leading the team in catch rate when lined up in the slot.
With either 64.6% or 68.8% (depending on how many targets you had Tate receiving) of all passes thrown his way completed last season and another season with over nine yards per target (that’s a fantastic total), Golden Tate established himself as at least a top-notch WR2 in this league when looking at rate stats. However, he was just 39th or 40th in the league in total targets despite being a top 20 receiver when looking at rate statistics (per PFF, he was ninth in the league in wide receiver rating, which is the quarterback’s QB Rating when throwing it to a specific receiver), which means that he was criminally underused by the Seahawks. Although 64 receptions for 898 yards is nothing to sneeze at, it is indeed disappointing when considering just how good Tate was, especially when you look at his ability to win in a variety of ways. This isn’t the fault of the Seahawks though, but Tate is nevertheless the victim of opportunity, as he played for a smashmouth running team that simply couldn’t give him more targets.
Calvin Johnson was ninth in the league last season with 156 targets, but it’s perfectly reasonable for Tate to expect around 120 targets next season, which would have put him at 26th in the league last season (behind Victor Cruz but ahead of Michael Floyd, Emmanuel Sanders, and Wes Welker). That’s right about where he should be considering his rate stats, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if he earned even more targets. I mean, Kris Durham and Nate Burleson combined to haul in 140 targets last season, but Tate will have to compete for targets with Ebron in addition to Brandon Pettigrew, Joique Bell, and Reggie Bush. Still, with Scott Linehan now with the Dallas Cowboys, the target numbers for the RBs should go down a bit. Joe Lombardi and Jim Caldwell should form a great coaching duo on the offensive side of the ball, so hopefully they fully harness Tate’s potential. The Lions offense will be a passing one behind Stafford’s explosive arm, and he has three explosive pass-catchers in Johnson, Tate, and Ebron to help vault him to the top of the quarterback rankings.
The Lions decision to hand $31 million to Tate wasn’t met with much criticism, and I am perplexed that some people don’t realize just how dominant Tate could be next season. Because if he is able to get 120 targets, then his average of 9.2 yards per target for the past two seasons indicates that he would have about 1,100 receiving yards. Of course, a wide receiver’s impact goes beyond their own numbers, and Tate will help free others up like Johnson and Ebron by lining up in different areas, running different route combinations, and combining his versatility with his explosiveness. By getting someone who can make big plays next to Johnson and provide a safety net for Stafford, the Lions drew out multiple defenders with one receiver (so to speak). It’s going to be a joy watching Tate and Johnson play off of each other, because I don’t think it will just be Johnson who takes the attention away from the former Notre Dame star.