Over the phone earlier this week, Nate Burleson sounded genuinely excited. Unlike last season, when he had to continue to rehabilitate the broken right leg he suffered in October 2012, he was healthy. He was fresh.
And right after the Super Bowl ended, he had the pangs to start training for this season. He knew then it wasn’t a lock that he would return to Detroit. He wanted to come back, had ingrained himself in the community that has become almost a second home to him.
But as we spoke Tuesday afternoon, there was at least a little bit of doubt that he would actually get to do what he had campaigned for toward the end of the season and beyond, which was to have the team restructure his deal so that he could stay with the Lions and finish his career with the club. His $7.5 million cap number for 2014 was a massive one, even if the team decided to work with him on a restructure.
And as of Tuesday, he had not heard from the Lions about his status, which likely was not a good sign in retrospect, even though it was a similar situation a year ago. But with a new coaching staff, that was probably a sign that his time in Detroit would end.
Now, after the team's decision to release him on Thursday, that won’t happen and he’ll join a deep free-agent pool of receivers looking to find work on March 11. It is an unfortunate ending for him with Detroit, though, almost more because of what he meant to the Lions off the field.
Burleson was the player you could count on to show up at charity functions. He was, from a media perspective, one of the most readily available players on a team full of guys who were often gracious with their time. And you could ask Burleson anything about any topic -- even Thursday, the day of his release, he was quoted on ESPN.com about Michael Sam -- and he would give a thoughtful, intelligent answer.
He also meant a lot to his teammates. He was the player a lot of young guys on the roster, regardless of position, could go to for advice and guidance. He often stressed to younger players the value of saving their money and investing and finding other outlets to do business, as he did with his Lionblood clothing line.
Burleson had taken on the roles of mentor, locker-room leader and on-field leader. He complemented Calvin Johnson well. As quiet and unassuming as Johnson is, Burleson was the guy who could be loud and get the team focused and energized. He and safety Louis Delmas often were the ones leading the pregame huddle and giving speeches.
On the field, when Burleson was healthy, he was a reliable target for quarterback Matthew Stafford. This past season, he had a 73.6 percent reception rate, second-best among qualifying receivers in the NFL and by far the highest among receivers on the Lions. He was also a good underneath option for Detroit to counterbalance the deep threat of Johnson.
It will be interesting to see how the Lions plan to replace Burleson from a production and leadership standpoint. Only two experienced slot receivers are likely to be on the roster: Ryan Broyles and Jeremy Ross, assuming he is extended a exclusive-rights free-agent offer. Broyles is coming off the third straight year in which surgery ended his season. Ross is a dynamic returner who can grow into the receiver role, but he doesn’t have much experience there. So the returning options have major questions attached to them.
This could be a large indication that the team is going to revamp the receiving corps to complement Johnson. It also almost guarantees that the Lions are going to be heavily targeting receivers in May’s draft, perhaps looking for a slot receiver as well as an outside receiver.
It could mean the team is planning to target a different, perhaps younger, slot receiver in free agency. Jacoby Jones, who played under Lions coach Jim Caldwell in Baltimore, is a free agent and could be an option.
The free-agent pool of receiving targets is deep, and this could have been another reason for Burleson's release. If the Lions thought they could find a younger, perhaps cheaper, option in a deep free-agent and draft class for wide receivers, they had to make this move.
That’s a tough call to make, but one Detroit clearly made.