Calvin Johnson finally in line for some help

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- I arrived on the sideline of the Detroit Lions' practice field Monday morning armed with a list of players I wanted to watch and/or talk to over the next few days. Receiver Calvin Johnson wasn't among them, and I'm not sure I can explain why. Johnson is without question the Lions' best player, and yet his name is hardly in circulation when it comes to national discussion about the team's prospects for this season.

That all changed for me about seven seconds after I arrived. At about that time, Johnson stole an underthrown deep pass from cornerback Chris Houston in a way only one or two other NFL receivers could. Later, I heard veteran receiver Nate Burleson say this: "He's the closest thing I've ever seen to Randy Moss, and I think Randy Moss is the biggest weapon in the history of the NFL."

None of this should be any surprise. Anyone who has followed the Lions over the past four years knows how freakish Johnson can be. But as part of a team that has won nine game in three years, Johnson has fallen short of dominating the league in a manner his skills suggest he could.

So will 2010 be any different? On Monday, Johnson expressed genuine optimism that it could be -- thanks largely to the addition of Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best. I think we can have a decent discussion about how that dynamic will play out, but first let's hear from Johnson.

"I like what we're doing on offense," he said. "We've got a lot of weapons. ... Even out here in practice, there is a lot more one-on-one. It is practice and the defense, they're going to play what they have to play to get ready for the season. But at the same time, during the season, there should be a lot more chances."

The idea is that Burleson, Scheffler and Best will draw away the exotic double- and triple-teams Johnson regularly faced last season. Johnson went so far as to suggest defenses will need an extra man in the box to stop Best.

Eventually, that could well be the case. I'm a big believer in the value of explosive running backs, and both Burleson and Scheffler possess proven downfield abilities. But none of that is going to happen automatically or without cause. Few, if any, rookie running backs draw a safety into the box before they start consistently breaking long runs.

And if you are an opposing defensive coordinator, are you really going to single-cover Calvin Johnson before you find out exactly how the Lions will use Burleson and Scheffler? No disrespect to either player, but I pity the first coach who allows Johnson to run away from man coverage because he was worried about Burleson and Scheffler.

"Defenses are going to make you beat them," Johnson conceded. "I'm sure we're going to have to prove that we can do that. After that happens, we'll probably see more single coverage in the secondary."

In the short term, Johnson is going to do more for Burleson, Scheffler and Best than they do for him. But if they can burn defenses early on, starting with the season opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, then look out. This season will mark the first time Johnson is playing for the same offensive coordinator in successive seasons, and it's also the first time he could spend an entire offseason working on chemistry with an incumbent quarterback in Matthew Stafford.

If there was ever a time for a lights-out season, it's now.

"Calvin doesn't say much," Burleson said, "so I'll be his buddy, his sidekick and his promoter. I know he's excited for this season and is very optimistic about what could happen."