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Something to prove: Ryan Broyles seizing his opportunity

Posted Aug 21, 2014

Wide receiver Ryan Broyles has had three consecutive season-ending leg injuries. Now healthy, the third-year pro is eager to show what he can do in 2014.

Coming out of high school in 2007, Ryan Broyles was a four-star recruit and rated the 11th best player in the country at his position. Except it wasn’t at wide receiver.

It was at cornerback.

Broyles, a third-year receiver for the Lions, played both positions at Norman High School in Oklahoma, excelling at each. However, scouts believed he belonged on the defensive side of the ball at the college level. One recruiting analyst said, “His future looks to be on defense”.

But Broyles wanted to score touchdowns, not prevent them. He signed with Oklahoma - where he would play receiver less than two miles away from his high school - despite being the last player the Sooners offered.

Ryan BroylesWR Ryan Broyles (Photo: Detroit Lions)

To this day, the 26-year-old hasn’t forgotten that fact.

“Going in, I wasn’t one of the first priorities to be offered at Oklahoma,” Broyles said. “So I went to college with a chip on my shoulder. I went in there and beat a couple guys out.”

Indeed he did. After redshirting the 2007 season, Broyles immediately made himself known. In his first collegiate game against Cincinnati in 2008, Broyles caught seven passes for a freshman record 141 yards and a touchdown.

Over the next two and a half seasons, Broyles used that motivation to become one of the greatest wide receivers in the history of college football. A two-time All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist (an award given to the most outstanding receiver in the country), the Norman, Okla. native set 10 game, season and career school records.

In addition, he became the NCAA career leader in receptions (349) and second in receiving yards (4,586) while scoring 45 touchdowns.

Unfortunately for Broyles, his collegiate career was cut short, as he tore his left ACL on November 5, 2011 during his senior season. That was the last time he played football 100 percent healthy.

Until now.

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The 5’10” 195-pound receiver was drafted by the Lions in the second round – 54th overall – in 2012. As a rookie, he played in 10 games, notching three starts, 22 receptions, 310 yards and two scores. His breakout game came on Thanksgiving when he set career highs in catches (six) and yards (126) vs. Houston.

However, a week later against the Colts, he tore his right ACL. Broyles’ season ended prematurely for the second time in as many seasons, just when he was showing his potential and regaining his Oklahoma form.

“I was getting in my groove,” Broyles recalled. “They put me in there and I made some plays. I was fighting to get back to that point.”

Once again, Broyles would have to spend months in the training room rehabbing his knee, and, more importantly, away from the football field. Yet he still entered the 2013 campaign with optimism. This would be his year.

Except it wasn’t.

In Week 8 vs. the Cowboys, Broyles suffered his third consecutive season-ending injury when he ruptured his Achilles on a punt return.

Ryan BroylesWR Ryan Broyles (Photo: Detroit Lions)

“To be honest, it wasn’t really a pain,” Broyles said. “It was like a dull pain. When I tore my ACL, I could feel that a lot more than the Achilles. I just thought the ball hit me, but when I stood up, I fell. My adrenaline was still going, thankfully.”

The road to recovery would be an all too familiar one for the wide receiver. Although the injury was new, the challenge of coming back and overcoming mental and physical hurdles was not.

Broyles had surgery two days after the game and the healing process officially began. For the first six weeks he wore a cast and couldn’t walk on it. For the following two weeks he wore a boot.

“The first two months were really slow,” Broyles said. “I really couldn’t do anything.”

Because of the operation and the immobilization, Broyles lost much of the muscle in his calf. When he finally got back on his feet, months of rehabilitation required stretching and strengthening his Achilles and rebuilding his calf muscle.

Broyles knows that injuries come with the territory. It is uncommon for players to make it through an entire season without getting hurt in some capacity. But Broyles’ luck – or lack thereof - has been the exception, not the rule.

“In a sport like football, things are going to happen,” he said. “Whenever you leave the season before it’s actually done and you can’t play, it’s never fun. You want to go out there, you want to make plays for your team and help them win.

“So to just sit on the couch for the last three years has been the hardest thing. Not everyone goes down three years in a row, but I know where I want to be and I dedicate everything I have to getting back on the field.”

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Heading into the 2014 season, a roster spot was far from guaranteed. Not only was the depth chart deep at wide receiver deep, but the new coaching staff had no allegiance to Broyles.

Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, who was signed away from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in free agency, are locks to make the team. Jeremy Ross, who doubles as a kick and punt returner, will make it as well, likely leaving two spots for four receivers.

The list includes Kris Durham, who was second on the team in targets last year, Kevin Ogletree, who received first-team reps through much of training camp, Corey Fuller, who spent 2013 on the Lions practice squad but has made a strong impression thus far, and Broyles.

During spring practice, the coaching staff kept Broyles’ workload light because they wanted to make sure he was going to be ready for training camp. Thus far, Broyles has spent much of his time with the second set of receivers - the ‘B’ group - but that hasn’t stopped him from having a great preseason, which will make it hard for the coaches to leave him off the roster.

Through two games, Broyles has caught five passes for 69 yards. Four of his five receptions have been for first downs and the versatile slot receiver has shown strong hands and the same shiftiness he displayed in college.

Ryan BroylesWR Ryan Broyles (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Broyles was terrific in creating yards after catch (YAC) with the Sooners, and he has put that ability on display in August. Last week against the Raiders, he turned a two-yard catch into a 34-yard gain by escaping a tackle.

“It’s very important,” Broyles said of YAC. “I feel like anybody can go out there and catch a ball. A college kid can come in and do that. But to make people miss and extend the play is something else entirely. I have the mentality to score every play and I think that’s what got me here.”

According to Lions wide receiver coach Robert Prince, Broyles is among the best on the team in that category.

“Ryan definitely has a knack for it,” Prince said. “We talk about it all the time, we want the play to begin once the receivers catch the ball. He certainly has that mentality and that’s always a tremendous thing for us.

“He is one of our best run-after-the-catch guys. We are liking what we are seeing and his production has been very good.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford knows what it’s like to start an NFL career on the injury report, having missed 19 games in his first two seasons. That’s why he’s impressed by Broyles’ resiliency.

“I’m happy for him,” Stafford said. “I’ve been there. (I) struggled through some injuries my first couple years, so I know just how demoralizing and tough that can be at times. Just to see him bounce back, his attitude has never changed, and to watch him go out there and produce on the field is fun.”

Broyles is 10 months out from his ruptured Achilles, his latest setback.  But through all the injuries and the uncertainty that came along with it, Broyles remains positive. He finally feels healthy, and with every successful rep, with every injury-free practice and game, he gains confidence. Like he has his whole football career, he just makes plays.

“I just keep pushing forward,” said Broyles, whose favorite route to run is anything that gets him the ball. “This is what I’ve been working for, and I feel like this is just the beginning.

“I play like it’s my last down every time I’m out there. I have something to prove.”

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