He didn’t play a single down during the 2016 regular season, only getting on the playing field during the Detroit Lions’ four preseason games.
But despite that, wide receiver Jace Billingsley is entering his second season in the NFL much more confident and with higher expectations of himself in his quest to land a spot on Detroit’s 53-man roster this fall.
“It’s still a tough situation. You have to fight to make a team. (But) it’s a situation now that I’m used too,” he said. “I feel way more comfortable in the system. It’s already been a lot smoother. I’m really excited to get the next season started.”
Billingsley, the former Eastern Oregon standout who was signed as a free agent by the Lions following the 2016 NFL Draft, spent essentially the entire season on Detroit’s practice squad. He was called up from the practice squad prior to the team’s Jan. 1 regular-season finale against Green Bay, but did not take the field for that game, nor for the following weekend’s loss to Seattle during the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
Billingsley said it was “torturous” not being able to participate on the field on game day, but that there were certainly benefits to being part of the practice squad.
“It was a great opportunity last year,” he said. “I learned tons from that.”
Billingsley said one of the focal points during his first season involved some of the intricacies of route running and its importance given the amount of man-to-man defense played in the NFL.
“At (the NAIA) level they didn’t play a lot of man-to-man, so being able to create separation when you play man-to-man and being able to read the defense so you can beat him and get open (is crucial),” he said. “That and just playing full speed every single play. Everyone’s fast. You have to be at top speed.”
And while he noted that he’s improved in every facet of the game, route running is, in the eyes of the league, the most important.
“When you’re in the NFL, route running is the biggest thing they look at,” he said.
He also kept an eager ear open to what he could pick up from the Lions’ veteran players and coaches. Wide receiver Golden Tate was an individual Billingsley said took him under his wing.
“He’s been supportive since Day 1,” Billingsley said of Tate. “He’s been a guy that has been a great mentor to me. We’re similar types of receivers — shifty (and) smaller. He just likes the way that I work and he’s a great mentor to everybody. I’m just one of the guys he helps out.”
The early stages of the offseason were about recouping.
“(After the) last of the season I came back (to Winnemucca, Nevada), took time off (and) made sure the body recovered. I enjoyed that time with the family,” he said.
More recently, though, the focus has been on getting ready for his second year.
In the spring, he traveled to Bellevue, Washington, to work out at Ford Sports Performance in preparation for the Lions’ rookie minicamp and non-mandatory organized team activities, or OTAs.
Working out in Bellevue, where he trained prior to being signed the year before, gave him an opportunity to be around other NFL athletes.
“I wanted to be around those guys, be able to compete and learn from some veteran guys and be sure I was in top shape for Detroit,” he said of the training period, which he said lasted four to five weeks.
Then it was back to Detroit for rookie camp from May 12-14, which Billingsley took part in since he was only on the 53-man roster two games, and OTAs, which took place on 10 dates between May 23 and June 9.
“You’re practicing. You’re learning the playbook again. There’s just certain limitations to the practices,” the second-year player said of OTAs. “There’s no contact. It’s basically regular practice, learning the playbook and getting back to where we were when we left (after the season).”
A few days later was Detroit’s minicamp from June 13-15.
“The only difference between minicamp and OTAs is that minicamp is mandatory,” he said.
Fighting for a spot
Veterans Tate and Marvin Jones Jr. are among the players who, barring an injury, are locks at wide receiver. Detroit’s third-round draft pick, receiver Kenny Golladay, from Northern Illinois, had a strong spring, according to espn.com, and appears to be on his way to making the 53-man roster, as well.
That leaves Billingsley battling with as many as seven other receivers for one of likely two final spots at the position. He is also in the mix as a kick returner.
The addition of Golladay at receiver could be seen as a detriment, but Billingsley said it’s a fact of life in the league.
“It’s the NFL. They’re always going to try to get better people and try to bring in competition. That’s just expected,” he said. “When it comes to that kind of thing, you just learn not to stress and not worry about it. You can’t worry.”
He said there’s a lot of stress given all the factors and challenges of being in the league and making a team, but one of the top things he learned from his first year — and what could carry him past the final cut — is letting that stress go and being grateful.
“The biggest thing is to be relaxed. Be thankful everyday that you get to be an NFL football player, go out there and enjoy the process,” he said. “That’s when I’m playing my best is when I’m able to enjoy myself.”
The Lions open fall camp July 31. Their preseason opener is Aug. 13, and Detroit begins the regular season Sept. 10.