Detroit Lions rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown began his first season in the NFL in an interesting—maybe unenviable—position. After three productive seasons with the USC Trojans, St. Brown was selected by the Lions in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft but was viewed more like a player picked three rounds earlier. He represented the one source of hope for an otherwise hopeless wide receiver corps.
In fact, the Lions were almost universally viewed as the team with the worst collection of wideouts to begin the year, and it was expected that St. Brown would immediately emerge as one of quarterback Jared Goff’s favorite targets. That wasn’t the case in the first three weeks of the season, though, as St. Brown was targeted just six times (total) by Goff. He had 41 receiving yards entering Week 4’s game against the Chicago Bears.
And it was that game—Detroit vs. Chicago—when Brown finally began showcasing the skill set that made him a draft-day steal for the Lions. He was targeted eight times, catching six passes for 70 yards. He continued the momentum last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings with another eight targets, this time catching seven of them for 65 yards. St. Brown has nearly 22% of the Lions’ target share over the last two games, and there’s no reason to suspect that will change.
The Draft Network’s Drae Harris projected St. Brown as a “prominent wide receiver for most offenses” in his pre-draft breakdown. It was an assessment of his game that’s beginning to prove correct:
“His play embodies a blue-collar toughness and competitiveness rarely seen from a wide receiver. He is excellent in contested catch situations due to his competitiveness and big-play ability. He excels between the numbers and is a threat in the short, intermediate, and deep passing game. He has excellent hand-eye coordination, which makes him efficient at catching targets.”
The development of St. Brown is a key goal the Lions must meet in 2021. Wins will be hard to come by for Detroit this year, but that doesn’t mean it will be a lost season. Instead, the objective for coach Dan Campbell should be the growth of his key young players like St. Brown, who’s now establishing himself as a critical piece to the Lions’ offense.
"He is developing just fine," offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said of St. Brown after the Bears game. "I love what he's doing. He's like I said last week—he's doing a lot of things that don't show up in the stats that are helping this team on special teams and on offense."
According to Pro Football Focus, St. Brown is getting better on a near-weekly basis. With the exception of Week 2’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, his gameday grade has gotten better every week, with last Sunday’s 75.0 against the Vikings being his new high watermark. In fact, St. Brown set new personal bests across the board on PFF’s scale in Week 5.
Sure, it might be a bit premature to get overly excited about a player who has just 19 catches for 178 yards and no touchdowns after five games, but with St. Brown, it’s different. It’s not about whether he’s at or near the top of any receiving category this year. Instead, he just has to flash—create some moments—and prove he can be a fixture in the Lions’ passing game as they continue their march toward QB-next.
Believe it or not, If St. Brown fails to deliver and washes out like many mid-round wide receivers have done across the NFL throughout the years, the impact on the Lions will be much more harmful than the usual fourth-round pick who fails. They have no one else on the roster to pin their hopes to at the position.
Kalif Raymond? KhaDarel Hodge? Trinity Benson? Tom Kennedy? These are the other wideouts who appear on the Lions’ depth chart for this week’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals—and with all due respect to all of them, they read more like participants in a preseason finale than Week 6 of the regular season.
Quintez Cephus is Detroit’s other young hope at wide receiver, but he suffered a collarbone injury in Week 5 and is expected to be out for an extended period of time. That leaves St. Brown to provide the Lions with at least one building block at the position to begin the 2022 offseason.
Wide receiver will be a high-ranking priority for Detroit in free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, but if St. Brown continues on his current trajectory, General manager Brad Holmes can rest easy knowing he has at least one legitimate ‘dude’ he can rely on.