Quintez Cephus has constantly been battling against long odds since he entered the league. When drafted by the Detroit Lions in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, he was already behind Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., and Danny Amendola on the depth chart. And when Golladay was injured for most of the season, rather than give Cephus a lot of playing time (he only started two games), they promoted Marvin Hall (five starts) and added Mohamed Sanu (four starts).
So after a rookie season in which his coaches seemed to refuse to give him significant playing time, he entered 2021 with an entirely new coaching staff who had not drafted him. The Lions were clearly looking for a different type of receiver in this new offense, so Cephus was, again, facing tough odds.
Let’s take a closer look at Cephus’ journey last year, and the challenge he’ll face again in his third year in the NFL.
Previously: RB Godwin Igwebuike
Expectations heading into 2021
The Lions’ receiving corps was questionable all offseason, which, in theory, would mean Cephus had the opportunity to shine. However, it was clear that Detroit was looking for speedy receivers after the additions of Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, and Kalif Raymond. Cephus’ game is more physical in nature, and given that Jared Goff is better throwing to players who can separate, some believed Cephus simply wouldn’t fit with what the Lions were trying to do on offense. Add in the drafting of Amon-Ra St. Brown and suddenly it looked like Cephus was heading into his second year without the guarantee of a roster spot.
To make matters worse for Cephus, a head injury in training camp cost him about a week’s worth of practice.
On the other hand, just about every receiver struggled in camp or was dealing with an injury. With no standout amongst the group — save for St. Brown’s tenacity — Cephus was one of the more consistent players among the group and appeared somewhat safe when it came to his roster spot. Still, it seemed unlikely his role would grow much from his rookie season.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 5 games (3 starts): 15 catches, 204 yards, 2 TDs
PFF grade: 71.7 (DNQ, but would’ve been 46th out of 94)
Cephus did, indeed, make the 53-man roster, and when Williams suffered what would be a season-ending concussion in Week 1, Cephus was thrust into the lineup. Over the next four weeks, Cephus proved to be a legitimate deep threat and Detroit’s more reliable wideout at the time. Here’s a look at his production compared to the rest of the group in Week 2-5:
Quintez Cephus: 13 catches, 192 yards (16.0 YPC), 1 TD
Caliph Raymond: 11 catches, 132 yards (6.6 YPC), 2 TDs
Amon-Ra St. Brown: 17 catches, 155 yards (9.1 YPC)
Trinity Benson: 3 catches, 36 yards (12.0 YPC)
KhaDarel Hodge: 3 catches, 39 yards (13.0 YPC)
Unfortunately for Cephus, his season would end halfway through Week 5 after breaking his collarbone against the Minnesota Vikings.
Outlook for 2022
Cephus did a great job proving his worth last year, stepping up when the Lions desperately needed someone to make an impact on the perimeter of the offense.
However, he’ll enter 2022 once again fighting for a roster spot. Detroit added DJ Chark and Jameson Williams to be their two starting outside receivers. Combine that with St. Brown’s breakout rookie season, and when everyone is healthy, there is simply not a role on offense for Cephus.
Even worse for Cephus, the Lions brought back Kalif Raymond and Josh Reynolds — two players who proved down the stretch they can be weapons on this offense and have good rapports with Jared Goff.
So Cephus will enter training camp firmly sixth on the depth chart, behind Williams, Chark, St. Brown, Raymond, and Reynolds. However, with Williams looking more and more likely to enter the regular season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, Cephus bumps up a spot to fifth, and that would likely be enough to make the final roster.
That said, it appears Trinity Benson — a player this Lions regime acquired via trade — is up for the challenge this offseason. After a hugely disappointing season in which Benson was simply trying to play catch up as a late addition, he suddenly looks more capable of being the speedy, versatile weapon that general manager Brad Holmes thought he was getting when he traded for him.
Cephus vs. Benson could turn out to be one of the more interesting training camp battles, and it’s possible they both make the roster while Williams is sidelined. If not, though, Cephus’ best advantage is his size and physical nature. Detroit simply doesn’t have many weapons on offense who can do what he does. He’s already looked promising in offseason activities, and receivers coach Antwaan Randle El expects that to continue when the pads come on next month.
“His spring this year is better than last year, but he’s also a guy that when the pads come on, he’s a little different,” Randle El said. “Meaning like he shows up a whole lot more. He’s just different with his pads on. He’s a bigger guy, more physical, so it’s good to see him (improve). ”
As always, when we’re talking about players this deep at their position, a good way to make the roster is via special teams. Cephus does not have a ton of experience there (91 snaps in 2020, two in 2021) and will likely enter camp repping behind Benson on special teams. That said, he’s earned far more trust from the coaching staff after his actual performance on Sundays, and his 2022 is off to a good start, too. At this point, he should be considered a slight favorite to land a roster spot come September.