Lions looking at Austin in NFL draft?
DETROIT - Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL, but as the Lions proved last year, even he needs a sidekick.
Nate Burleson broke his leg and missed most of the season. Ryan Broyles tore his other ACL and landed on injured reserve. Titus Young squandered his once-promising career with insubordinate behavior. And the Lions finished the year with three defenders plastered on Johnson and no one who could make teams pay on the other side.
Young's gone now, and though Burleson and Broyles are back and should be key parts of the passing game, the Lions' never-ending search for a No. 2 receiver goes on.
They drafted receivers in the second round each of the last two years, have taken four overall in Martin Mayhew's four seasons as general manager, and probably will take one again in this week's draft.
Not at No. 5. There's not a receiver worth taking that high. But at any point after that (including in a first-round trade-down), the Lions could go with a receiver.
So what are they looking for, besides someone who'll stick around longer than the two seasons Young (a second-rounder in 2011) and Derrick Williams (third, 2009) made it?
"I think with what we have on the roster right now I would say somebody that can stretch the field," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "I think in the NFL, more and more today, everybody's looking for that. It doesn't matter if you're playing opposite of Calvin Johnson or not, you want somebody that can run."
The Lions hosted four receivers projected to go in the draft's first two rounds on pre-draft visits this year, and all fill the speed requirement.
West Virginia's Tavon Austin isn't a typical outside receiver at 5-feet-8 and 174 pounds, but he's an electrifying return man who ran one of the fastest 40-yard dash times (4.34 seconds) at the NFL combine.
"In the era we're in in the NFL, his skill set transitions and translates tremendously well," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a teleconference this month. "Now, 20 years ago it might have been a different ballgame, and the three guys that are dominating, that are putting up big numbers at the slot receiver position, went undrafted. But that certainly doesn't affect Tavon Austin. He's a guaranteed first-round draft choice and probably no later than Pick 16."
The Lions have enough slot types on their roster in Burleson, Broyles and Mike Thomas, whom they acquired in a trade from the Jaguars last year.
More likely, they're looking for a player like USC's Robert Woods or Tennessee teammates Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the other three receivers to visit Allen Park. All three have 6-foot-plus frames and the speed to challenge defenses deep, though Patterson is raw in his development, Hunter tore his ACL as a sophomore and Woods' production waned last season.
The Lions might not be able to get Hunter, Patterson or Woods at pick No. 36 early in the second round, but NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said they should be able to find help for the passing game somewhere this week.
"There's a lot of depth to this wide receiver draft," Mayock said Thursday.
Cal's Keenan Allen and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins also are expected to go in the first two rounds, and at the Senior Bowl in January the Lions coached probable Day 2 picks Terrance Williams of Baylor and Quinton Patton of Louisiana Tech.
Mayhew joked back in January about his taste in receivers, saying, "I'll keep loving them, I got to pick them better." And Stafford said last week any addition will be a welcome one to the offense.
"I don't know if there's that perfect guy that you can say he's got this, this and this," Stafford said.
"We found a way to make it work with all sorts of guys at that spot. I trust the guys upstairs."