Jace Billingsley's rookie season with the Detroit Lions ended with a gain in status, even though it didn't show up on any box score or stats sheet.
Billingsley was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-player active roster the day before the final regular-season game against the Green Bay Packers. Even though he was not one of the wide receivers who were active for that game or for the Wild Card playoff game against Seattle, it was a step up for Billingsley.
It was a sign that management and the coaching staff saw enough from Billingsley's work on the practice squad to make him part of the plans for the 2017 season. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it left Billingsley with a good feeling going into the offseason.
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"Honestly, there wasn't a whole lot of difference because I wasn't able to get on the field," Billingsley said before heading home to Nevada. "But it was a good thing for me, and a good thing for the future, hopefully.
"I still have a lot of work to do. It was one of those deals where it was an honor to be in that situation."
An immediate perk was being on the traveling squad for the playoff game. Billingsley always ran routes in the pregame workouts while on the practice squad, but doing it on the road before a playoff game was an entirely different feeling – especially in a setting like Seattle's CenturyLink Field.
"It was cool going to Seattle for that game," Billingsley said. "I got to see the playoff atmosphere. I'm glad I got to do that."
It was all part of a whirlwind week. He wasn't even the first to know that he'd been promoted to the active roster. The move was made on Dec. 31 – the day before the Green Bay game. A roster spot opened up when Theo Riddick was put on injured reserve.
Billingsley was at a health club getting a treatment – which is common for players to do – and didn't have access to his cellphone when the Lions were trying to contact him. When he checked his phone, he saw messages from Lions GM Bob Quinn and Jace's father, Jim, back home in Nevada.
"I saw a text from my dad that said, 'Give me a call, ASAP,'" Jace said.
It marked the end of a year that began inauspiciously for Billingsley, but had many positive steps along the way.
Billingsley went undrafted despite amassing almost 6,000 all-purpose yards rushing, receiving and on returns at Eastern Oregon, one of the top NAIA schools that competes in the Cascade Collegiate Conference. He also made a strong showing at his pro day workout, with a time of 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 25 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
The Lions signed Billingsley as a free agent after the draft. At 5-9 and 189 pounds, Billingsley fits the physical profile of some successful slot receivers such as Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, who work the middle of the field and keep the chains moving by using their quickness to pile up receptions.
That's not a prediction that Billingsley is the NFL's next 100-catch slot receiver. But he did make an impression in the preseason with 12 catches for 136 yards and two TDs. With reserves getting most of the playing time in the final preseason game against Buffalo, Billingsley had a team-high seven catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions went with veteran receivers in 2016. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and Anquan Boldin were the top three, with Andre Roberts filling the fourth spot as the top backup. TJ Jones started the year on the practice squad and was on the active roster for three regular-season games and the playoffs.
There is bound to be some turnover at the receiver position. How that affects Billingsley – or anyone else competing for a roster spot – remains to be seen. But the end of the 2016 season gave Billingsley a good start on 2017.
"It's a whole new year next year," he said. "I've got to go through the whole process again, which I'm excited about. I'll be a lot more confident, a lot more ready."