MOBILE, Ala. — New Lions coach Jim Caldwell won’t sit down to fully evaluate the roster he inherited until after the Senior Bowl, but when he does he’ll find an offense that’s short on reliable pass catchers.
The Lions need to add two receivers this off-season and should have options both in free agency and the draft, where a talented group of underclassmen makes this the most intriguing class of wideouts in recent memory.
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, USC’s Marqise Lee, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks all project as first-round picks, and the best receiver on display at the Senior Bowl this week, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, could slide into Day 1, too.
Matthews, 6-feet-3 and 209 pounds, set every Vanderbilt receiving record imaginable during four star-studded seasons and left school this year with the most catches and yards of any player in Southeastern Conference history.
Those accomplishments are “cool,” Matthews said, but something he hasn’t had time to appreciate yet.
“Probably when I get a lot older it’s something really cool to be able to share with my family,” Matthews said. “But I think if you asked a lot of people who the SEC’s all-time leading receiver was, they’d probably have no idea. So it’s something that I don’t even worry about broadcasting.”
Along with his production on the field and NFL-ready body, Matthews has some of the most intriguing bloodlines in the draft: Hall-of-Fame receiver Jerry Rice is his mother’s first cousin.
Matthews said he first met Rice when he was 12 or 13 and went to California for Christmas. Rice was with the Oakland Raiders at the time and near the end of his career, and Matthews and his family were Rice’s guest at a game.
“We got to spend some time and got to go to his house, went to the game,” Matthews said. “We had tickets. They were too close to the Black Hole and there were some words going around that I don’t think my mom wanted me to hear at 12 years old, so we changed the tickets and we got some better ones, definitely ones with less profanity.
“But it was a good atmosphere, really good time and we got to spend some time with him at his house and just seeing how his work ethic brought him from Starkville, Miss., to that point in his life, it makes you want to go out and do something on your own.”
Matthews and Rice have only had sporadic contact since, though the two talked in November before Vanderbilt’s game against Kentucky when Rice gave Matthews advice on how to finish out the season, playing in the Senior Bowl and getting ready for the draft.
Still, Matthews said he’s learned the receiver position by watching Rice from afar.
“I’m not big on calling him and bothering him,” Matthews said. “If he really wants to get in contact with me, I’m sure he’ll find the time and he’ll do that. But I’ve learned enough from him that he won’t even know of just from watching his film, cut-ups and then trying to emulate him with things in my game, so you can’t ask for more than that.”
Like Rice, Matthews has a reputation for being a tireless worker.
He spent time after practice this week catching extra passes from the South team quarterbacks, and he said he prepared for the Senior Bowl by watching film of every cornerback playing in the game.
“Proper preparation prevents poor performance, that’s kind of one thing I like to live by,” Matthews said. “I wanted to make sure I got a good look at (Oklahoma cornerback) Aaron Colvin. I had heard about him, I seen his highlights, but I hadn’t watched him in a full game so you want to know about those guys. Chris Davis from Auburn, that’s a physical corner. You want to make sure you have some releases ready for him before you have to stand up at the line and look at him. So (it was) just kind of getting ready. Those type of tactics and that type of preparation, some of that stuff’s from Jerry, but also from watching guys like Peyton (Manning), Tom (Brady), Wes Welker; learning from those guys, too.”
While Rice, understandably, is Matthews’ all-time favorite receiver, he’s a big Calvin Johnson fan, too — he signed with Johnson’s agent, Bus Cook — and said “it would be awesome to play with” Johnson in the NFL.
“I mean, he’s obviously the best wide receiver in the game, I don’t think anybody could dispute that,” Matthews said. “I’m a big Jerry Rice guy, so I’d put him right there behind him probably with the likes of a Randy Moss and Cris Carter. He’s a legendary receiver still playing, so it would be awesome to play with a guy like that and just learn and anything.”