NFC North: Calvin Johnson
And it wasn’t with the Detroit Lions, who selected him second overall in that draft.
“I thought I would either be in Tampa or Atlanta, honestly,” Johnson said. “Both of them were not too far from the top in the draft, and I figured one of them might be able to move up. I really thought I was going to go to Tampa because I liked [Jon] Gruden, had a really good workout with those guys.”
Those seemed like solid options. Looking back now, Oakland passing on Johnson in favor of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who is out of the NFL, seems preposterous. That is the inexact nature of the draft, though, from talent evaluation to trying to figure out where you’ll go as a prospect.
In retrospect, Johnson said “it didn’t bother me” that he wasn't taken with the first pick because the Raiders are far from Georgia and he wanted to be closer to home. Detroit then selected Johnson with the No. 2 pick, and he turned into a franchise centerpiece for the Lions.
It is a franchise, though, that has struggled to win despite having the best receiver in the game, a receiver who has three straight 1,400-yard seasons and is the most difficult offensive matchup in the NFL.
Yet Johnson’s career feels incomplete because of the lack of team success for the Lions.
“It’s been, I can’t say it’s been exactly what I wanted,” Johnson said. “When I first came into the league, my first three, four years, I had a teammate from college win a Super Bowl.”
Johnson said he doesn’t want to see the rings his former teammates have because his team, the Lions, continues to try and reach the final game of the season for the first time. While he would obviously like to reach that point, he said he can’t really be frustrated by it because there’s only so much he can do on his own.
And it’s why he looks at Detroit’s talent now and looks at his career, now entering his eighth season, and is focused even more intently on team success.
“That’s all I’m focused on,” Johnson said. “I had great stats in my career, you know, but really you want to win. You want to get to the playoffs again. That’s a great feeling when we did a couple years ago.
“We want to get that feeling back. We have a lot of guys that have been there, that have won Super Bowls and a coaching staff that has won Super Bowls and it’s great to have that experience.”
Some of those players, such as Reggie Bush and Golden Tate, along with a coaching staff that has extensive playoff and Super Bowl experience as assistants, is where Johnson takes his confidence that finally he'll be able to have some of that postseason experience as well.
Help would take some of the intense focus of defenses off of him and potentially give him more single-coverage matchups than he has seen to date in his career. Now in his eighth season, he is hoping the Detroit Lions have managed to give him that.
“Golden is going to get a lot of one-on-one coverages, man,” Johnson said Tuesday. “All those weapons that we have, those one-on-ones, they go full-circle and I might get some more myself.”
That might be a bit of wishful thinking by Johnson, who often treats double coverages as other receivers would treat single coverage. There’s a reason he is widely considered the best receiver in the game and one of the best all-time.
Despite all the attention and coverage, Johnson has four straight 1,000-yard seasons, has caught more than 10 touchdown passes in a season four times in his career and has caught at least 67 passes in every season other than his rookie one.
Johnson has done that even when teams have focused almost all of their energy on him and even when it became obvious how lacking the Lions were offensively in 2013 without him. During the two games Johnson was out of the lineup the Lions scored less than two touchdowns in each game, both losses.
So he sees Ebron, Tate, last season’s running backs -- Joique Bell and Reggie Bush -- and sees a lot of options other than him. That should also give Johnson more flexibility as he said the coaches asked him to learn every receiving position on the field, not just the two spots on the outside.
“They are going to make a lot of plays for us this year, a lot of explosive plays for us and get the ball down the field and increase our scoring chances,” Johnson said. “So yes, I’m going to be out there and make big plays but those guys are going to help us out a ton.”
Johnson hopes that help will help him reach the one place he hasn’t been often. For all the statistics he has and for all the accolades he has received, he has been to the playoffs only once in his career and, like the rest of the Lions, has zero playoff wins.
So even if the new weapons means a decrease in individual stats, he would be OK with that.
“Shoot, we should get more wins,” Johnson said. “That’s really all that counts. If we get more wins, I’m happy either way.”
- The most important and interesting item to come out of the first day of Lions training camp had nothing to do with anything the team did on the field. Instead, it had everything to do with Detroit's decision to table contract talks with Ndamukong Suh until after the season. The Lions said they decided to do this to make sure the focus remained solely on the season ahead, but they also took attention away from the first day of training camp with an off-the-field issue. At least for Detroit, it can avoid daily questions about it from now on.
- Rookie linebacker Kyle Van Noy had a bit of a rough day. He injured his thumb during the first half of practice, ending the second round pick's participation in the first training camp practice of his career. He didn't seem too bothered by it, though. “I should be out there (Tuesday),” Van Noy said. Lions coach Jim Caldwell seemed a bit less optimistic, saying “we'll see how he goes the rest of the week.” Caldwell said the team wouldn't be able to determine the extent of the injury until Tuesday.
- The Lions' secondary had a pretty decent first day in 11-on-11 work. Both Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis broke up passes intended for receiver Golden Tate, and the secondary covered well enough on other plays in the full-team periods to force Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to have to throw dump-off passes to running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush instead. It's only one day and they are not in pads yet, but a decent sign for a Lions secondary that needs to put together a few good days early.
- One of two Lions players who did not practice -- as expected -- was defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Caldwell said Sunday he did not have a timetable for his return. Ansah spent most of Monday's practice off on the side chatting with folks. When asked about his return, he said he had no idea when he would come back. Another defensive end, Kalonji Kashama, was released by the team Monday.
- In the battle for receivers not named Tate or Calvin Johnson, both Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree had nice catches Monday. Ogletree had an impressive catch over the middle -- although he probably would have been drilled by a defensive back had it been a real game. Durham made a nice catch running an out on the sideline as well. In what is expected to be an extremely tight battle, plays like that are going to be noticed every practice.
- This will be worth paying attention to throughout the first week: Corey Hilliard took snaps at right tackle ahead of LaAdrian Waddle during 11-on-11 periods Monday. Hilliard is more of a veteran than Waddle and Waddle is still expected to win the job, but an interesting small side note on the first day.
Score: Vikings 12, Lions 10
Date: Oct. 12, 2008. Site: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minneapolis
Here's why I believe Orlovsky's safety in the end zone should be the most memorable play in the team's history and it has little to do with Orlovsky, who is a better quarterback than people give him credit.
Considering the franchise's woebegone history, it is representative of so much of what has happened to the franchise in the Super Bowl era. One playoff win. No Super Bowl appearances. Losing season after losing season, no matter who was the coach and what players they had -- other than a brief respite with Barry Sanders.
The Orlovsky play stands out as a reminder of all that.
The embarrassing play is emblematic of the Lions, who put a good player in a tough situation. But it is, without question, a play that will be remembered and replayed over and over again for a long time. That is what the definition of a memorable play is -- and none are at the level of the Orlovsky safety with the Lions.
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Detroit Lions history. In the past two days, we have featured Barry Sanders' touchdown run in the Lions' playoff win over Dallas in 1992 and Calvin Johnson's touchdown catch in triple coverage against the Cowboys in 2011. Please vote for your choice as the Lions' most memorable play.
Score: Minnesota Vikings 12, Detroit Lions 10
Date: Oct. 12, 2008 Site: Herbert H. Humphrey Metrodome
Where to start?
When one thinks of the Lions, the season that immediately comes to mind has everything to do with futility. That's what happens with a franchise when winning seasons are rare, playoff appearances are sporadic and a Super Bowl appearance is yet to happen.
This is where Dan Orlovsky and the play comes in. It came early in the game during Orlovsky's first NFL start, when the Lions' starting quarterback ran out of the Minnesota end zone with 18 seconds left in the first quarter to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead over the Lions.
What makes the play so memorable is that Orlovsky, being chased by Jared Allen, clearly had no idea where he was on the field. Even after he stepped out of bounds, Orlovsky kept rolling right trying to make a play. He took almost 10 steps running before he slowed up, realizing what he had done.
"When they started blowing the whistle," Orlovsky told USA Today after the game, "I was like, 'Did we false start or were they offsides or something?' Then I looked and I was like, 'You are an idiot.' "
It was, in many ways, the play that symbolized the entire Lions 2008 season, a year when legitimately nothing went right for the Lions.
It likely wouldn't be remembered nearly as much had Detroit actually won the game -- or lost by anything other than two points.
Detroit took a 10-2 lead in the game after Orlovsky threw a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson only to lose 12-10 on a Ryan Longwell field goal with nine seconds left.
The play also overshadowed an otherwise decent first start for Orlovsky. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown. For the season, he completed 143 of 255 passes for 1,616 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The combination of all these events, plus the Lions' winless season, left Orlovsky with a play still replayed from time to time. It was also why there was trepidation from some when Orlovsky decided to return to Detroit this season as the backup to Matthew Stafford -- and to try to rectify some of the past.
“I get the fears maybe with obviously fans and whatnot,” Orlovsky said soon after signing. "But the organization knows what they're doing and I know I'm a good player and I certainly hope to be a part of changing some of that past, whether that's directly or indirectly."
@mikerothstein Orlovsky is the worst play of the worst season in NFL history.— Josh (@jgalbreath82) June 13, 2014
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Detroit Lions history. On Monday, we featured Barry Sanders' touchdown run to cap off the Lions' only Super Bowl era playoff win. On Wednesday, we'll feature Dan Orlovsky running out of the end zone for a safety in 2008. Please vote for your choice as the Lions' most memorable play.
Score: Lions 34, Cowboys 30
Date: Oct. 2, 2011 Site: Cowboys Stadium
What Barry Sanders was to running with the Detroit Lions, the team found the pass-catching equivalent less than a decade later when they drafted wide receiver Calvin Johnson with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. And for that, the Lions should be forever thankful to Oakland's decision to take JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall selection.
And sometimes, every once in a while, he’ll do it when there are three defenders on him. That there were two such touchdown receptions to pick from in Johnson’s career is unbelievable enough. So one of them definitely deserved to be on this list.
The one we chose came on the road at Dallas during the team's last playoff season in 2011. Matthew Stafford waited for what seemed like an eternity, continuously patting the ball as he waited for Johnson to come free. He didn't, but it didn't matter. As has happened so often in the careers of Stafford and Johnson, the duo went for the play anyway.
Stafford threw the ball toward the end zone with Johnson surrounded by three Dallas defenders. Johnson had sprinted toward the end zone and posted up safety Barry Church, who was fighting with Johnson in the end zone. Stafford had thrown the ball during the post-up, which Johnson routinely wins.
By the time the ball reached Johnson, Church had help from cornerback Mike Jenkins and linebacker Sean Lee. It didn’t matter. Johnson had already snagged the ball out of the air and when he is able to do that, defenders typically don’t have much of a chance.
The play was one of some significance for the season, too. The touchdown began a come-from-behind win for Detroit in which the team scored 17 points in the final quarter to stun the Cowboys. This was the fourth win in a row to start the season for the Lions. The team began the year 5-0 and finished 10-6 to make the playoffs. Without Johnson's triple-coverage catch -- and the second touchdown he caught in the fourth quarter -- the team may not have reached the playoffs.
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
The Detroit Lions finished up the second day of their mandatory minicamp Wednesday and it was probably the most balanced day the team has had during their sessions. After the first two weeks of open practices where the defense was dominant and the last couple of practices where the offense has been better, neither group seemed to take over the practice.
- A decent amount of players missed practice Wednesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Chris Houston and linebacker Stephen Tulloch were not spotted at practice. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), guard Rob Sims, wide receiver Golden Tate (shoulder), wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, running back Mikel Leshoure and running back Joique Bell (knee) all sat out practice. Ansah, Tate and Bell were expected. Sims has missed team drills all offseason, as had Glover Quin, who only worked in individual drills Wednesday.
- Jason Jones appears to be slowly moving back to health. He seemed more active Wednesday than he has during past open practices, including working some with the first unit. He is still coming back from a ruptured patella tendon suffered last season, but he will be a contender for the closed defensive end spot in the fall opposite Ansah on the defensive line.
- Player of the practice: For the second straight day, it is Calvin Johnson. Any question about Johnson’s health are now gone. He was once again the best player on the field and caught everything around him. He appears to be completely over his injuries and has his timing with Matthew Stafford down once again. He beat any cornerback the Lions lined up against him during 1-on-1 periods and on one play leapt over DeAndre Levy to catch a pass that he ended up running in for a touchdown.
- During those 1-on-1 drills between defensive backs and receivers, the receivers clearly won the day. They had at least six completions to start the drill, including Kris Durham reaching out to make a difficult catch in front of Darius Slay. Corey Fuller also beat Aaron Hester on a post route that was pretty impressive.
- Sequence of the day: Two impressive plays in a row. First, safety James Ihedigbo jumped a route from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew to break up the pass. It was a great break on the ball by Ihedigbo. Stafford followed it up, though, with a perfectly threaded ball to Patrick Edwards into a small window over safety Don Carey. It was the best throw Stafford made on the day.
- Carey is starting to really emerge as the probable third safety, although this is not unexpected. He once again filled in for Quin during team drills and has been a decent presence back there. In the secondary, Jonte Green is the one player who doesn’t seem to be getting as many reps as one might think.
- As they did Tuesday, Rodney Austin and rookie Travis Swanson both took first-team reps at guard and center. While Austin worked some at center Tuesday, Swanson was there Wednesday. In some ways, this is a test from Jim Caldwell to see if both of them can play both guard and center, something imperative for a reserve interior lineman. With Sims out, Austin has spent the majority of spring working with the first team at left guard.
- This is getting repetitive, but Theo Riddick continues to be impressive. He seems a little faster than last season and might have improved more than anyone else on the roster from last season. He is putting himself in position to have a real role in this offense this season after being primarily a backup in 2013.
- Written about Eric Ebron’s drops here a bit, so worth noting when he makes the type of catch the Lions drafted him for. He extended on what looked like a poorly thrown ball to stretch in front of safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to make the grab before hitting the ground. It is one of the best catches he has made in the open practice setting this spring.
- With Tulloch not in attendance, Tahir Whitehead took a lot of the first-team snaps at linebacker next to Levy. He was pretty active there. While he is primarily a special-teams standout – he’ll end up having a roster spot because of his special-teams play – that the Lions staff inserted him there behind Tulloch would appear to indicate he is having a pretty good spring. After practice, Caldwell cited how Whitehead controls the movement of other players in that space as one of the reasons they like him behind Tulloch.
- Really good day for Sam Martin. The second-year punter had some help with the wind, but he crushed almost all of his punts. It is tough to see yard lines because of how the Lions’ outdoor practice fields are set up, but he said after practice one of his punts went over 80 yards and had a few go at least 70 yards. He said his shortest on the day was 63 yards. Strong day for him.
The Lions are going to be more intelligent this season when they go for big plays.
“Not to say that we weren’t smart [before],” wide receiver Calvin Johnson said. “I guess, we [are] just picking and choosing our times, maybe when we go deep or when we can take a chance.”
That led to turnovers, lost possessions and what appeared to be a reliance on the top receiver in the NFL to make play after play. Now, with an offense under new coordinator Joe Lombardi, Johnson seems to think they will be just as aggressive, but in different spots.
“We’re going after guys,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing we’ve always done here, but we’re definitely going to be more smart about choosing our times.”
Much of the Lions being smarter with the chances they take and the conversions they make will have to do with the increased maturity of Stafford and the trust he has with Lombardi.
No matter what the coaches call and what the other players do, how smart the Lions end up being will fall on the development and understanding of Stafford with the offense. So far, he appears to be grasping it.
“I think you’ll see as Matt continues to grow and really becomes what he will become in this league is that when he has his shot, he takes it and when he doesn’t, he checks it down or moves on to another guy,” quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “That’s when a quarterback really moves to the next level, is when he gets the total respect and trust from his coordinator that when he’s calling a shot, I’m calling it for a touchdown and if it is not there, we’ll move on and we’ll call it again.
“That is getting to a comfort level with Matt and Joe.”
This could be part of the explanation of why the Lions' offense took a bit longer to develop than the team’s new defense. Beyond a terminology switch, there needed to be a trust and comfort level between Stafford and Lombardi, even during practices that are just preparation for the fall. To help with this, Lombardi had Lions players -- from linemen to skill positions -- watch old films of the New Orleans Saints to see where they would fit in with their new roles.
As they became more familiar with each other that grew, and the past two weeks the development has shown. Of course, the level of aggression Detroit will show during the season will depend on the week, the opponent and who is available on the offense.
For instance, the Lions are not likely to be as aggressive if Johnson or Stafford or even Reggie Bush were not on the field as they would be if those three were available.
That the offense appears to have found a comfort level could lead Lions coach Jim Caldwell to have some defensive concerns, but he’d rather see his offensive and defensive units alternating being good instead of having it all favor one side.
“That’s what it’s been doing, and that’s a good sign,” Caldwell said. “Rather than one side completely dominating the other.
“Obviously, then you feel that you’re in trouble.”
As long as Detroit’s offense and defense keep having those good days – or good weeks, even – then the Lions feel like they won’t be in trouble at all. And that will allow them to be as aggressive as they want all over the field.
Except he does not see it that way.
At the time, he was a 26-year-old receiver whose best season was 45 catches for 582 yards and two touchdowns.
What happened over the next three years turned the deal into a bargain for the Packers. Nelson went over 1,000 yards in both 2011 and 2013 and would have done so in 2012 had injuries not kept him out of four games.
In the last three seasons, only three other NFL receivers -- Dallas' Dez Bryant, Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Denver's Eric Decker -- have more touchdown catches than Nelson (30). He's 12th in yards (3,322) and sixth in yards per catch (16.45) among all receivers during that same stretch.
"When I signed it, I don't think I did," Nelson said Tuesday. "I think everyone when I signed thought it was a good deal. No one would have known I'd have 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns [in 2011]. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20 but, again, I'm not worried about that at all. I've been comfortable with my decision.
"I've talked to other guys who've given me a hard time about it and they've been in the same situation of getting re-done with a year left and like, what to do. You've just got to live with your decision, one way or the other. You sign it, you've got to be happy. If you outplay it, you've got to deal with it. If you don't sign it and you get hurt, you've got to deal with that."
Financials aside, Nelson's last contract put him in a difficult spot age-wise for his next deal. Last week, he turned 29 -- an age at which Packers general manager Ted Thompson has been known to let receivers walk away. James Jones turned 30 just weeks after the Packers let him leave in free agency this offseason, and Greg Jennings was 29 when he left the Packers for the Minnesota Vikings the previous offseason.
Nelson, however, argues his last contract put him in prime position for another big deal.
"I heard the other day, a doctor told me that 28 to 32 is the prime age for a male athlete," Nelson said. "I was actually surprised by that."
"On my end, if you do outplay it right away, you'll be right back up there in two, two-and-a-half, three years," Nelson added. "Even on the organization's side, it allows them to sign someone. ... Maybe they don't quite have a full grasp of what they're going to be like so we'll give him three years and maybe we can figure out more about him. Yeah, I think it was great on both sides, and I look forward to talking to them again."
Nelson said Tuesday he believes those talks will heat up soon.
However, the Packers might be more inclined to do a deal with fellow receiver Randall Cobb first. Cobb, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, is just 23 years old.
For his part, Nelson is doing everything he can to stay young. He says he weighed in Tuesday at 210 pounds -- seven pounds below his listed playing weight. But he insisted that has nothing to do with him being in a contract year.
"They know everything about me," Nelson said. "They know we don't want to leave, so I'm not worried about saying it. You just want to make sure you get it done."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Detroit Lions' offseason moves.
Riskiest move: Detroit opted to not go after an impact cornerback during free agency and then waited until the fourth round to draft one earlier this month. Why is this a risk? It means Detroit is trusting that one of its unproven cornerbacks (Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood) or one of the players who was inconsistent last season (Chris Houston, Darius Slay) will be prepared to make the jump or return to form in 2014.
Most surprising move: The Lions declined Nick Fairley’s fifth-year option for a seemingly baffling reason. Detroit wanted to use it to try to motivate the talented but inconsistent defensive tackle to improve his game. In doing so, they essentially could be letting him walk out the door. There was no downside for Detroit in picking up Fairley’s option. It is not a guaranteed option and considering the unresolved contract situation surrounding Ndamukong Suh, it could leave the Lions without either of their top two defensive tackles come 2015.
Everything focused on Stafford: One of the biggest themes of the offseason was finding help for quarterback Matthew Stafford, now entering his sixth season with Detroit. The Lions signed him a new target in Tate, drafted him a new tight end in Eric Ebron and brought back a familiar comfort player in Brandon Pettigrew. It hired a coaching staff full of quarterback experience, from head coach Jim Caldwell (worked with Peyton Manning) to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (worked with Drew Brees) to quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter (worked with Manning). In a league driven by quarterback play, the Lions placed a lot of their 2014 focus on making sure Stafford can do as well as he can.
Here are some observations and thoughts after watching the Lions' practice under head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for the first time.
- The defense appears faster and certainly more excited than anything I remember from last season. They celebrated plays a lot and seemed to be a fairly cohesive unit throughout the practice. They also seemed to be playing a lot better than the offense throughout the majority of Wednesday’s practice, from individual periods to team periods.They seemed sharper, from a couple of interceptions of the first and second groups to just being more aggressive throughout the practice.
- Of those players, cornerback Cassius Vaughn stood out heavily. He made a beautiful break on intercepting a Dan Orlovsky pass and had it been a real game, Vaughn might have scored on the play. He seemed to be aggressive and realizing there was an opportunity to be had with Chris Houston and Chris Greenwood both out of practice Wednesday.“At this point in time, he’s been here with us for a while,” Caldwell said of Vaughn. “He’s a guy that loves to play and he loves to tell you about it once in a while as he’s playing. But nevertheless, he’s a guy that’s working extremely hard trying to win a spot on this team. He does bring some energy.”It’s only one practice, but if Vaughn keeps playing as he did Wednesday, he may end up in contention for a roster spot come the fall.
- Calvin Johnson did not look like his typically sharp self. He dropped a couple of passes and looks like he is still finding his way into playing shape. Don’t forget, he did have offseason surgery and it is May – so nothing to be concerned about yet. Also not looking particularly precise was quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was intercepted by Stephen Tulloch on one play and had a couple of other balls dropped.
- Michael Williams is going to have to put on some weight – and he knows it. He said after practice he probably needs to add another 15 to 20 pounds – he’s put on six to seven already – and hasn’t played offensive tackle in his life. Yet playing tackle instead of tight end might end up being his best path to a roster spot in the fall and in the future, so it makes sense for him to make that switch.
- DeAndre Levy’s beard is intense – that much was known beforehand – but he looks like he could end up building well off of last season’s breakout season. He seems pretty comfortable already and in strong shape. This is going to be important for Detroit’s defense this season.
- Was also impressed by the size of undrafted free-agent safety Jerome Couplin. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, but when I noticed him in the defensive backfield, he didn’t look like your typical safety. He’s longer, rangier and perhaps has a longer stride than most of your typical defensive backs. He almost looks more like a taller receiver than someone in the defensive backfield. He’s going to end up being a player to watch in contention for a roster spot at points during this camp.
- Jeremy Ross also looks like he has improved from a season ago. Possibly a bit bigger – especially in his arms – and perhaps with a little bit more speed as well.
- Golden Tate was not at the Lions’ open practice Wednesday. He was a bit busy with other things – like going to the White House with his old team, Seattle, to meet President Barack Obama.
- Others not participating (in at least some extent) were running back Joique Bell, defensive end Kourtnei Brown, cornerback Chris Greenwood, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left guard Rob Sims, linebacker Brandon Hepburn, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Chris Houston. Of those players, only Houston, Tate and Fairley were not spotted as at least being in attendance. Some of these players participated in walk-throughs or individual drills.
- The Lions have one more organized team activity in this period – Thursday – before being off for the weekend.
Marshall's three-year, $30 million contract extension also came with him entering the final year of his contract. His last deal averaged $11.194 million per season, making him the NFL's sixth-highest-paid receiver, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data.
While Marshall isn't an exact comparison for either Cobb or Nelson -- at age 30 he's closer in age to Nelson (28) than Cobb (23), but he has five Pro Bowls and one All-Pro selection compared to none for either Nelson or Cobb -- every deal signed by a marquee receiver will help shape the market for the Packers' duo.
Nelson's last contract averaged $4.2 million per season, an average per year that currently ranks 32nd among NFL receivers. If nothing else, Nelson's camp certainly has a strong case that he's better than the 32nd-best receiver in the NFL, especially coming off a season in which he ranked 13th among receivers in receptions (85) and 10th in yards (1,314).
Cobb is still playing under his original rookie contract -- a four-year, $3.233 million deal that ranks 79th on the list of receivers in terms of average per year. Again, there certainly are not 78 receivers better than Cobb in the NFL, but the injury that kept him out of 10 games last season could impact the negotiations. Also, the fact Cobb plays primarily in the slot could limit his value. The highest-paid slot receiver is Victor Cruz ($8.6 million per season) of the New York Giants.
As of Monday, there were eight receivers with contracts that average at least $10 million per season led by Detroit's Calvin Johnson ($16.207 million per season) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ($16.142 million).
Before the Packers began signing their latest round of rookie contracts last week, they had $15,078,037 in salary-cap space available for this season.
Periods between the letters in his preferred first name or not? This, apparently, is not a clear-cut answer.
“Ehh. It’s kind of a preference, I guess,” Jones said. “TJ really stands for Tai-ler Jones. It’s, I don’t put periods in it. No periods.”
He would say it ‘Tyyyla’ because he’s from the south and that’s how he always spoke. So for the sake of comfort and not having to constantly correct people or here his name differently, he shortened it. Tai-ler, for the public, became TJ.
“Behind the spelling, my mother’s from Korea so they wanted to go with a more different, unique spelling,” Jones said. “So the Tai is like Taiwan and there’s actually a dash in between to space it out.
“It really started my senior year of high school and my first semester at Notre Dame, they were calling me Trailer, Taileer, Taylor, anything you can think of with that arrangement of letters.”
While he took care of his name issue early on, people started to find out who he was by his junior season, when he caught 50 passes for 649 yards as a junior and then as a senior, where he had 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns.
He also had two rushing touchdowns his senior season, and general manager Martin Mayhew specifically cited his ability to make plays in critical situations and his hands after the team drafted him in the sixth round last weekend.
Due to his size – he’s generously listed at 6-foot – he has started working with the Lions in the slot rather than on the outside, mostly because on the outside Detroit has Calvin Johnson and potentially Eric Ebron. Both of them have a bit more height than he does.
“It’s kind of hard to compete with that,” Jones said. “With a jump ball with them.”
He started working with some of those players this week, although he admitted he didn’t really know what he was doing in the few plays he ran with the first unit. That’s part of being a rookie, though, something Jones understands and is trying to embrace.
“At first it was a little overwhelming,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a dream come true to have such greats surrounding you. You know, after the first time it is this is what you need to expect.
“This is something you have to get used to because if you want to play next year, if I want to get on the field, I’m going to be surrounded by them.”
Eric Ebron heard the question and it took a second for him to reconcile it all not because of when it was happening -- as he lined up during a play earlier this week -- or what was being asked. The shock came because of who, exactly, was asking him the question.
"I'll be like, 'Yeah, I'm good,' " Ebron said. "But you still shaking because you're lining up beside Calvin Johnson."
And he wasn't lying -- or so Ebron says. If anything, it was more excitement and maybe a little bit of awe because, as he put it, "I was beside Calvin Johnson. In a play."
That feeling will eventually disappear for Ebron. If he is anything close to what the Lions expect out of his rookie year, he'll be doing it often throughout the next month and then in training camp and during the season. At least that's the hope for Detroit, a team that invested the No. 10 pick in the draft on the North Carolina tight end.
And on Ebron's first day of real practice after his first real week as a professional football player, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the tight end was exactly what the team expected. During the media portion of practice, Ebron only worked on blocking and short routes. Overall, though, Caldwell appeared impressed by his first Lions draft pick.
"He's just what he's supposed to be," Caldwell said. "He's a big, athletic guy that certainly moves extremely well, covers a lot of ground and he's learning quickly.
"He's adapting and doing all the things you would anticipate he would do. Let's just put it this way, his reputation preceded him and he's living up to it."
Not bad considering Ebron called the entire first week of his Lions tenure a challenge, from learning the playbook to trying to figure out everything else attached to being a professional football player and a first-round draft pick.
He compared the amount of things he has to learn to what a quarterback might have to pick up, minus working on dropping back. Essentially, though, as he's picking things up he's still having fun with everything.
He used that word -- fun -- a few times during a five-plus minute chat Friday. And for him so far, everything has been just that, fun, even as he's learning at the same time. Part of it might be what he already sees, that there could be opportunities for everyone in this offense.
He picked that up from lining up next to Johnson.
"It's going to be incredible," Ebron said. "I'll work my way into the starting position eventually. Maybe this year, maybe next year. However it goes. Definitely getting an opportunity to play beside [Brandon] Pettigrew, Calvin, Reggie [Bush] and Golden Tate and all those guys.
"You can see how the playbook and my position can open up the voids and the areas where those guys can shine from the attention that I receive."
That's why Detroit needs Ebron to be good -- both when Johnson asks and when he actually starts to play.