NFC North: Matthew Stafford

Lions Camp Report: Day 5

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
8:00
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • Rough day for the first-team offense during a two-minute drill situation. Defensive ends George Johnson and Darryl Tapp -- neither of whom is expected to be a first-team defender this season -- had touch sacks of Matthew Stafford. Stafford and the offense also went three-and-out on one possession with the quarterback being forced to throw away multiple passes when no one was open. Not surprisingly, Ndamukong Suh was also causing havoc up the middle. The second team fared better, scoring a touchdown and having Giorgio Tavecchio also make a 41-yard field goal to close practice. Jim Caldwell didn't seem too concerned, though, with any of the issues the first-team offense was having.
  • Why not? Well, the first-team offense still has Calvin Johnson, who made two exceptional catches Friday to show why he is the top receiver in the game. He grabbed a touchdown in 7-on-7 after the play was whistled dead, but the way he plucked it was exceptional. There was another play in which a Stafford pass looked like it was headed nowhere, then Johnson came out of his break, dove perfectly on the low ball and caught the ball in front of Chris Greenwood in 11-on-11. It was one of those plays that no defensive back can do anything about. And that has nothing to do with Greenwood, as other cornerbacks will attest to.
  • This was perhaps the best day for Detroit's kicking competitors thus far. Combined, Nate Freese and Tavecchio went 11-for-11, including Tavecchio's 41-yarder to end practice in a two-minute situation. Both also made field goals from 53 yards during a special teams section of practice. Meanwhile, Sam Martin is having a great camp punting. He continually boots punts of more than 65 yards and appears stronger than his rookie season already.
  • Among the defenders who stood out was rangy cornerback Mohammed Seisay. The Nebraska product, whom I wrote about more in depth here, is still a longshot to make the roster. However, with uncertainty in the final one or two cornerback spots, a strong camp could make him a consideration. He read a pass to tight end Eric Ebron perfectly during one-on-ones and broke the play up well. He wasn't the only defensive back to grab attention, as Darius Slay continued to have a strong camp, including a good pass breakup in the one-on-one session.
  • Mentioned Kevin Ogletree on Thursday and he put together another good practice, but Corey Fuller is starting to catch some notice as well among wide receivers. He caught a long pass in the two-minute drill from Dan Orlovsky after easily beating Greenwood. He also had nice catches during the receiver-vs.-defensive back session on both Nevin Lawson and Cassius Vaughn. He is a much more confident player than he was a season ago and looks like a completely different one -– an assessment he said he agreed with following practice.
  • The Lions return to practice at 10:30 a.m. Saturday for their final day of the first week before taking Sunday off. Like Friday, Saturday is expected to be a fully-padded practice.

Lions Camp Report: Day 4

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
7:30
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • Referees were at practice Thursday and seemed to throw several flags throughout the session. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the officials will be around for a few days to help the players become aware of new rules. The specific area of emphasis, Caldwell explained, is pulling of the jerseys. “It’s really going to affect everybody, you know,” Caldwell said. “It used to be if you grabbed a jersey and you restricted a player, if they saw the shoulders turn a little bit or maybe his stride changed, they would throw the flag. “But now, it’s any tug of the jersey, regardless of what it does to you and the quarterback can be looking over there and the foul can occur behind him and they still are going to throw the flag. So there’s a huge emphasis on that. Those are some of the things we have to make certain we get accustomed to.”
  • Red zone was a focus of Thursday’s practice. On both fields, there was a significant period dedicated to work 20 yards from the end zone and in. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was fairly sharp during this period, highlighted by a leaping touchdown catch by receiver Kris Durham in coverage. It was a catch with a high degree of difficulty by Durham, who was rotating in on the same field along with the majority of the players who have been running with the first team.
  • Speaking of the offense, this was the sharpest the offense has looked throughout the first four days. There were still some throwaways and dump-downs, but Stafford had a pretty good day, completing a large majority of his passes throughout the practice session. Eric Ebron, whose drops have been chronicled here the past three days, had a very nice catch at one point as the ball was headed out of bounds. That is the positive part of why the team drafted him in May.
  • Rookie Kyle Van Noy appears to be starting to make an impact. The linebacker worked with the first-team defense during portions of Thursday’s practice and is starting to push to replace Ashlee Palmer at the SAM spot. After the draft, general manager Martin Mayhew indicated they believed Van Noy would be a starter pretty quickly. Tahir Whitehead also caught Caldwell’s attention, and while he isn’t a starter, the head coach said the third-year pro out of Temple continually shows up well on film. He won’t supplant Stephen Tulloch, but that, plus his special-teams ability, should put him in a good spot.

The Lions return to practice Friday at 3:30 p.m. for a practice open to the public.

Lions Camp Report: Day 1

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
8:30
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • 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.
Matthew Stafford will make his season debut for the Detroit Lions on Monday on the field -- and he'll also have two television advertisements doing the same thing.

Stafford appears in ads for DISH Network and they are ... interesting to say the least.

His fiancee, Kelly Hall, co-stars in one ad where Stafford is a surgeon trying to operate with a chainsaw. The second ad has puppets apparently trying to keep Stafford on a mountain.

Here's the ad with Hall. Here's the ad with the puppets.

Enjoy at your leisure.
A season ago, when colleague Ron Jaworski tabbed Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford as the 13th-best quarterback in the NFL, there were some questions about why he was so low.

Stafford
Stafford
Stafford is now lower this season.

Jaworski, who ranked 32 quarterbacks, placed Stafford firmly in the middle at No. 16 -- and it has nothing to do with his talent. Jaworski lauds Stafford's arm, saying his physical skills belong in the top 10. But as many have pointed out -- including in this space -- his decisions and certain throws have always been his problem.

General manager Martin Mayhew fired Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan in part because of this, replacing them with an offensive-minded staff focused on quarterback development. The Lions' hope is Stafford has a strong enough season where he finally climbs into the top 10 on this list, since it was based on last season's production and throws.

Jaworski also took issue with Stafford's accuracy and reading of coverages, common concerns when it comes to the franchise quarterback in Detroit.

Stafford is not the lowest-rated quarterback in the NFC North. Not even close. To find out who is -- check out his rankings at this link Insider.

Camp preview: Detroit Lions

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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NFL Nation's Michael Rothstein examines the three biggest issues facing the Detroit Lions heading into training camp:

Offensive knowledge: The Lions looked better over the final two weeks of spring workouts than they did during the first few weeks, when the offense and quarterback Matthew Stafford looked completely out of rhythm. However, there is still a lot of learning and adjusting to go, including the re-entry of receiver Golden Tate and running back Joique Bell into the offense after they sat out part (Tate) or all (Bell) of the spring with injury. By the time training camp begins, the terminology for the new Detroit offense should be down. It'll be the implementation and the repetition of it that likely will still need some work, this time against a defense that eventually will be allowed to bump, press and blitz. The key here, as it always is lately when it comes to Detroit, will be Stafford and his comfort level with the new offense. Most of the players remain the same for him -- but making sure the routes and terminology are correct is going to be one of the most important things for the Lions as they prepare for the season.

What's up at corner: Chris Houston is gone. Darius Slay, barring injury, will almost certainly be a starter in his second year with the Lions. So, too, will Rashean Mathis, who spent almost all of the spring as the cornerback opposite Slay. The question is who ends up behind them. While looking at backups might seem an odd issue for camp, the Lions have been struggling at corner for years now, and having depth there is going to be a key. Bill Bentley will likely end up in the slot -- although expect him to be pushed at least a little by safety Don Carey and rookie Nevin Lawson. The outside cornerback roles, though, will be interesting to see. Cassius Vaughn had a good spring, and the veteran could end up earning a roster spot with a strong summer. Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood both enter their third seasons with the club and could be fighting for one roster spot between the two of them, especially if the Lions choose to keep Vaughn. This is also an area for which Detroit could end up trying to find a veteran upgrade through the free-agent wire, much like the team did with Mathis a season ago. A signing during camp, he turned into the leader of the Lions' cornerbacks and the team's top performer at the position by midseason.

The kicker: For almost two decades, this was not a problem position for the Lions. Jason Hanson showed up to camp. Jason Hanson kicked the ball. Jason Hanson won the job. Simple. Done. Last season, the Lions went with veteran David Akers, a situation that didn't work out. Now, the Lions are hunting for a player they hope will have the same consistency and longevity of Hanson, who retired after the 2012 season. Nate Freese, on whom the team spent a seventh-round pick, and Giorgio Tavecchio, a former Cal kicker who has bounced around training camps the past two years, are the candidates. Tavecchio has the stronger leg. Freese is likely the more accurate kicker and, due to having a draft pick invested, would appear to be the favorite. However, Detroit understands the importance of having a strong kicker. Justin Tucker made six field goals against the Lions last season to help crush their playoff hopes. That was just the latest example of a strong kicker hurting the Lions. So figuring out which player gives the team the best shot will be an underrated -- but vital -- portion of camp.
The main key for success for the Detroit Lions this season is remarkably simple and has been the main focus of the franchise since it fired coach Jim Schwartz following the 2013 season.

Stafford
Stafford
From hiring new head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to signing Golden Tate, re-signing Brandon Pettigrew and drafting Eric Ebron, that focus has been giving quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he could possibly need to succeed.

Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.

Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.

There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.

Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.
Dan OrlovskyAP Photo/Jim Mone
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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.

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Yet the Lions live with the ignominy of a team and a franchise that went without a win throughout a season. The Lions are the only team in NFL history to go 0-16 -- and it was a season with a few close games, perhaps none more winnable than in Week 5 at Minnesota.

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."

Calvin Johnson, Sean Lee, Barry ChurchMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

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Which is the most memorable play in Lions' history?

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Since then, Johnson has made eye-popping catch after eye-popping catch. If there is one defender on him, it is usually a loss for that cornerback or safety. If there are two defenders on him, often a defense has a chance -- but there are many times where Johnson will make the grab anyway.

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.

 

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

First Down

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.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – There is now one day left.

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.

Johnson
That might be a good sign for the Lions that the offense is catching up to the defense even if both sides of the ball were without key contributors. Here are some thoughts, notes and observations from the day.
  • 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.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- To help quarterback Matthew Stafford improve his future, the Detroit Lions are reaching back to the past. Kind of.

In order to really focus on the mechanics of the sixth-year quarterback, new coach Jim Caldwell has started to use what he calls a ladder cam during practices. The purpose of the camera is simple. It is essentially Stafford's camera. It focuses on what he sees and the movements he makes.

By doing this, the Lions are hoping they can drill into Stafford the footwork, throwing motion and mechanics they want him to use. It's an idea Caldwell started using back in 1982, when he had someone actually standing on a ladder to create the picture of what the quarterback was seeing down the middle of the field.

Nowadays, technology is a little more advanced than that.

"It's been quite inconspicuous until this time," Caldwell said. "Now it's big, it's got the conductor's stand on it. We've kind of developed it, progressed over the years, technology has improved.

"That's something that we use, just focus on the quarterback's fundamentals and techniques. It doesn't leave him but it gives you a real good view of what's happening in the middle of the defense."

The reasoning is the quarterback is typically looking down the middle of the field when reading coverages and making decisions about when and where to throw the ball. It gives a view into what the quarterback is seeing every play.

By doing this from a different angle than end zone film or a TV copy of film, it turns into a more specialized teaching tool for Stafford and the coaches.

"It's more so for confirming what you thought you saw," Stafford said. "Whether it's, hey, this was really good or I felt like I got stuck here or didn't get there. It's kind of like either, yeah, or maybe it was better than I thought or worse than I thought. It's just a good teaching tool."

It is not the first time Stafford has used something like this. The coaches at Highland Park High School in Texas used a rudimentary version of this, where the coaches had someone following him and the other quarterbacks everywhere during the offseason to get an idea of what they were seeing.

This, obviously, is a lot more advanced -- and Stafford joked could be another way for the NFL to bring in its fans.

"It's kind of a unique perspective," Stafford said. "Maybe the NFL will put it out with their 22 coaches tape. They'll get a ladder cam for the games, too, so fans can feel what we're reading on every play, too.

"But it's interesting. It's cool. It's good for a quarterback, quarterback coach to kind of go over. Just where your feet are, where your head is, where your eyes are, where the ball gets placed. All that, it's good."

Good enough, the Lions hope, to help Stafford correct some of the mistakes he has made in the past and make the conversion from a good quarterback to an elite one.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions haven’t even reached training camp yet and already, their biggest offensive player is insisting on one difference from the team’s offense of the past.

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.”

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLions receiver Calvin Johnson said QB Matthew Stafford will be more selective with his deep passes this season.
Detroit showed that during the first day of mandatory minicamp Tuesday, when Johnson caught a touchdown pass of over 50 yards from Matthew Stafford over two defenders. Plays like that have been somewhat commonplace with the Lions during the careers of Stafford and Johnson, but sometimes they were forced in years past.

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.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It is not uncommon for NFL contracts to become outdated in a hurry.

Someone is always signing a new deal or an extension to become the highest-paid this or the highest-paid that.

Rodgers
Rodgers
So when Colin Kaepernick signed his contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers last week, the initial reports suggested his deal contained more guaranteed money than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s highest-paid player.

On paper, Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million extension that contained $61 million in guaranteed money. But in this case, the definition of guarantee is a loose one.

As ESPN’s John Clayton pointed out in his weekend Mailbag column, Kaepernick's deal is much more of a pay-as-you-play contract than the five-year, $110 million extension Rodgers signed on April 26, 2013. Rodgers’ deal was loaded with real guarantees.

Rodgers' signing bonus of $35 million followed by a guaranteed roster bonus of $9.5 million that was paid this March and another one worth $9.5 million due next March brought his guaranteed money to $54 million in real dollars.

For those who were outraged that Kaepernick received more guaranteed money, a closer examination of the deal revealed that those were "soft" guarantees. Kaepernick's yearly guarantees don't become such until April 1 before each season, meaning the 49ers can get out from under the deal at any point without paying those so-called guarantees.

So for the time being, even though Kaepernick has the potential to collect more than Rodgers, it's not accurate to call him the higher paid at this point.

Perhaps the best measure when comparing contracts is a three-year window. Looking at it that way, here's a breakdown of the top quarterback contracts by average per year, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data:
Three of the quarterbacks on the list -- Ryan, Cutler and Kaepernick -- signed their deals after Rodgers did his 14 months ago. In that time, Rodgers' contract has held up. He remains the highest-paid quarterback with a $22 million-per-year average over the life his deal.

Maybe Russell Wilson, the next quarterback likely to cash in, will surpass him. But Kaepernick's deal did not.
DEARBORN, Mich. -- He spent four seasons with one highly-touted, highly-drafted quarterback, and now Nate Burleson might end his career playing for another one.

Stafford
Stafford
Manziel
After four seasons working with Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Burleson is now catching passes from the most well-known player taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel.

While Burleson joked he’s going to stay out of the spotlight of Manziel -- he’s too old for that now as he turns 33 in August -- he sees one similarity between Stafford and Manziel, who are otherwise very different quarterbacks in terms of style.

“The one thing they are quite comfortable in is that they are quietly cocky, which is a great characteristic to have at the quarterback position,” Burleson said. “You want to walk in the huddle and know that the guy throwing you the ball, you’re, like, he’s the best.

“Johnny has that. Matt has that. We’ll see what happens. But [Brian] Hoyer’s playing great right now and he’s coming off an ACL, not even 100 percent and he’s playing at a high level, so we have a great quarterback position. We’ve got some good things going up in Cleveland.”

At least from the outside, Manziel is rarely described as quiet. Has he been described by some as cocky? Sure. Confident? Absolutely. Someone who could end up being Cleveland’s starter? Possibly.

But quiet is not something you often hear about Manziel.

“From what I’ve seen [he is],” Burleson said. “Outside looking in, everybody has their misconceptions about him. He’s acting like a rookie should, which is don’t say nothing.

“But I know what he’s thinking. I know he’s like, ‘I’m the man.’ He’s supposed to think that. Now he’s not acting like that. He’s not walking around with his chest out. Rookies don’t do that. He understands the role he’s in. But I can tell he knows how good he is, and he should be. He’s a talented dude.”

From a production standpoint, Cleveland would likely take Stafford’s statistics over the past five seasons. In a pass-first offense, Stafford has completed 1,485 of 2,497 passes for 17,457 yards, 109 touchdowns and 73 interceptions.

But as Stafford is a passer who won’t look to run very often at all, Manziel has that capability, which makes him a more dangerous quarterback in some ways. But if one thing carries Manziel as it did Stafford, Burleson is correct: That confidence Manziel has will absolutely help.

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