Kenny Golladay could be breakout star, key to Lions’ offense

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Kenny Golladay will lean back ever so slightly in the Detroit Lions’ meeting room and begin to speak. In front of him is an explanation of something they were going to work on or had just completed, and Golladay just isn’t quite sure of it.

So the second-year wide receiver takes his massive frame, pushes back and asks the receiver behind him a question. And Marvin Jones Jr. almost always has the answer.

“He’ll ask me a lot of different things,” Jones said. “Sometimes a play or sometimes what should I have done right there or what would you have done. Stuff like that. Whatever question pops in his mind, he asks.

“He wants to be that guy that’s dominant and stuff like that, and you see it transfer on the field.”

Dominance has been a big word in Golladay’s lexicon so far this training camp. While often choosing not to talk with the media, he did say in a rare-for-this-year interview that his plan was to “dominate every day and that’s just what I’m looking forward to.”

That’s come intermittently — but his presence is noticed. The Lions’ tallest receiver at 6-foot-4, Detroit selected him in the third round last year in part because of his jumping ability, catch radius and knack for grabbing the ball at its highest point. Combined with his speed for a bigger receiver, it made him a tantalizing early threat — something enhanced by his two touchdowns in both the preseason and regular-season openers in 2017.

Then he went quiet for most of the year, in part due to a hamstring injury that cost him five games of his rookie year. But the potential was intriguing. Then he started lining up on the outside during training camp opposite Jones with Golden Tate in the slot and had flashes of dominance again.

It’s reason to think he could be a massive key to Detroit’s offense this fall. Among receivers with 20 or more receptions last season, Jones was first in the league with 18.05 yards per catch. Golladay was fifth at 17.04 yards.

Having the two of them on the field at the same time with Tate, the NFL’s yards-after-catch leader among receivers last season, forms a dynamic combination most teams in the league don’t have.

“It is trouble for the defense,” tight end Michael Roberts said. “It’s so many options on both sides of the ball. If you put the two of them on the same side, it’s even more trouble. It’s just a well-balanced offense.

“You saw what we did, drafted a running back, brought in LeGarrette [Blount], took an O-lineman in the first round (center Frank Ragnow) so that’s obviously speaking to our run game, and that’s what they want — they want to run it. So it’s just becoming a very balanced offense and it’ll show soon.”

It’s also one that has the big-play capability because of Jones and Golladay — but specifically Golladay. With the three receivers on the field at the same time, teams will struggle where to shade a safety or straight up double a player. Focus too much on the short game with Tate and Theo Riddick and both Golladay and Jones win one-on-one matchups with corners. Focus on the deep threats and it leaves Tate and Riddick underneath to move the ball.

“Everything,” Golladay said, “works in together.”

Golladay becomes a bigger option, too, with the departure of tight end Eric Ebron. Golladay has the height (6-foot-4) of Ebron with better jumping ability. He also could siphon some of the targets that went to Ebron since the tight end combination of Roberts and Luke Willson is unlikely to garner the attention Ebron did last year. This could lead him to be the breakout player on a veteran offense with multiple pass-catchers at every position.

It helps, too, that Golladay grasps the game better than he did a year ago. He understands how to face longer corners and how important the details are to turn him from a receiver with potential into one of the better ones in the NFL.

“He’s understanding the game,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “He’s understanding where he needs to be. I can tell he’s focused.”

That’s on the field, where it’s shown through his play and his numerous grabs over Detroit’s defensive backs in the red zone and out of it. Then off the field, in the meeting rooms, he’s focused more, too.

And there, where he’s still learning, all he has to do is turn around to find the answers. Because sitting there is Jones. And that’s been a help, as he’s learning new parts of the offense under a different head coach.

“Just understanding the full concept of what we’re doing, which he’s learning, which has been good so far. Just really being consistent with all of that information,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s one thing to kind of come in as a young player, learn a specific role, be consistent with just that information.

“But now once you expand the information, to make sure that is continually improved upon as that goes through.”

Photo: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Lions’ Golden Tate, IndyCar champ reconnect through pingpong

DETROIT — They embraced early Wednesday evening like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, which, in fact, they hadn’t. More than a decade had passed since Golden Tate and Josef Newgarden were both students at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and up until six months ago the two hadn’t spoken since their days in the halls together.

They now are professional athletes at the highest level — Tate a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and Newgarden the reigning IndyCar champion. Back then, they barely knew each other — an association only through Tate’s younger brother, Wesley, and a few challenges at the donated pingpong tables set up at Pope John Paul II during lunch breaks.

“This is weird and such a strange deal, but it’s like nothing has changed,” Newgarden said. “He doesn’t seem any different, which is great. Humble guy, super nice, down to earth and just seems like the same old player. Star player, ready to get after it, and very competitive.”

Michael Rothstein/

It was pingpong that brought them together Wednesday — months after a Twitter challenge was issued for the two to play when Newgarden came to Detroit for a pair of IndyCar races this weekend.

Tate and Newgarden are a combined rarity — an NFL player and IndyCar champion who went to the same high school at the same time.

“It’s awesome to be around such amazing athletes and people who are elite at what they do,” Tate said. “You could always learn something. I wish I could sit down with him a little bit more and just talk to him and see what makes him so good at what he does because I don’t know much about racing at all.

“It was fun, man. He made a bold move at a very young age and it worked out, and he’s considered one of the best at what he does. To leave high school and move to Europe and know this is my calling in life, that’s pretty special. It kind of shows you that fire he has deep, deep down that you can’t necessarily see out here.”

That didn’t show much in high school, either. While Tate was the flamboyant star of the football team who once signed autographs at an opposing school after a game, Newgarden was reserved. Overly polite.

Wesley Tate said not many people understood what Newgarden did back then — or how good he could end up being. Golden Tate, meanwhile, had stardom attached to him from the start.

“We’d talk about motorcars, talk about different things. What you did see was a transformation when he talked about race cars, racing, that kind of thing,” said Mike McLaren, the dean of students at Pope John Paul II. “You saw a personality come out. It was deep down, kind of hidden. There was an excitement in things that you didn’t see him talking about in other subjects.

“Golden was living the success with the football team, with the basketball, everything on campus. Golden is a very kind … he’s actually very humble underneath, but he’s a character. He’s gregarious, outgoing. He’s dynamic.”

They both showed that Wednesday, spending about 10 minutes catching up on their lives before warming up for their pingpong exhibition. Tate asked about Newgarden’s career. Newgarden inquired about Tate’s brother and his new family.

And if there’s proof they haven’t spoken in so long, they exchanged phone numbers for the first time as professional athletes after the match — hoping pingpong can be the impetus for a newfound friendship. Tate talked about visiting Newgarden in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn about racing. Newgarden said he would love to stop by Tate’s charity events in Nashville.

Neither one could remember who was better during the few matches they played at lunchtime during their final year at the school. Tate conceded Newgarden — who beat him in back-to-back games and won $2,500 for the SeriousFun Children’s Network after an impromptu bet — likely was the better table tennis player then as well.

Table tennis was a thing at the school. Challenge matches happened at lunch. So, too, would a pingpong version of the basketball game Knockout. Newgarden and Tate interacted the most there — even if both don’t remember much about it.

“Those were always fun times,” former Pope John Paul II football coach Jeff Brothers said. “And when [students] would play head-to-head matches, small crowds would gather, that type of thing. It was, that was everything. It was the thing to do, hang out and play pingpong.

“When anybody would have challenge matches, and I specifically remember Golden, he’s competitive in everything that he does, so I remember those times. Pingpong was a big deal, for sure.”

Tate is considered the best pingpong player in the Lions’ locker room, although Wednesday he said he hadn’t played in months. Newgarden brought his own paddle, hosted a pingpong challenge in Indianapolis in May and comes from a table tennis lineage. His grandfather, Joe Newgarden, is in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame and founded Newgy Robo-Pong, a table tennis equipment company — a company Wesley Tate said Newgarden would talk about in high school around the table.

After they finished playing, Tate and Newgarden had a future idea: make this a yearly game. Maybe even expand on it.

“You know what I think, I think more sports should jump in on this,” Newgarden said. “There should be annual pingpong competitions inter-sport, see who is the best. I don’t know how good LeBron [James] is, but if he’s good, he should play. People should play. It’s a good idea, right?”

To which Tate responded: “Let’s set it up.”

It already reconnected two athletes whose paths crossed years ago, so who knows how big it could get?