NFL Nation: Matthew Stafford

Lions Camp Report: Day 1

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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.

Camp preview: Detroit Lions

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

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.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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.

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.

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.

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.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Everything is still a bit of learning for Golden Tate. He’s in a new city with a new coaching staff and a new offense.

He’s missed time to go to the White House to be honored with his former Seattle teammates and also at least part of the past week of Detroit Lions practice due to a sore shoulder. So the wide receiver, the team’s biggest free-agent acquisition this offseason, is still in the process of picking everything up as he adjusts to his new life.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMatthew Stafford hasn't been the only player to have questions in the Lions' new offense.
And considering his time away to meet President Barack Obama and the injury, he’s doing pretty well with it.

“I think I understand the majority of the material. I think I understand the concepts. I’d say around 70, 80 percent,” Tate said. “The last 30 will really be understanding how to run their routes and how it’s supposed to be executed.”

Tate has spent practices where he's run routes without wearing a helmet and bothering the coaches after plays to help explain things to him so he can learn even while he’s on the sidelines. This isn’t uncommon, but it's part of him pushing forward from his current 70-80 percent understanding rate.

When that comes is unknown, although it’ll almost definitely be before the end of the first week of training camp when the Lions reconvene this summer to actually prepare for the season. This has been the commonplace answer when it comes to Detroit’s new offense and somewhat commonplace among the team’s skill position players.

There’s a lot there to learn, from positioning to phrasing. The combination of having to forget what they once knew by rote will take time, especially when it is being replaced by similar things with different names.

It’s something the Lions' quarterback, Matthew Stafford, had issues with early during the offseason workouts. Even offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi admitted to sometimes forgetting exactly what he was calling because he was so ingrained in what New Orleans, his former team, used to call everything.

And the Lions, even though they are using a lot of the things the Saints have done, will absolutely use different terms.

“You know, there’s a time where I’m calling a play and I’m like, ‘Dang it, that’s not what we call it anymore,’" Lombardi said. “We’re all dealing with that a little bit, but that just comes with reps and time.

“By the time we hit August it’s going to be second-nature to everybody. It’s a bigger issue in May than it’s going to be in July, August and certainly September.”

Even though it is taking time to learn and even though Tate hasn’t been out there, what he has seen thus far has been on the same level as what he expected when he signed his contract in March. He likes the pacing. He likes the personnel.

It’s just getting everything down.

“This is a very, very fast-paced offense. I’m having fun,” Tate said. “I’m still trying to learn the plays to running those routes where Coach Lombardi wants them. It’s another challenge and I think I respond well to challenges.

“I’m just trying to get as good as I can in this offense so once late July comes, early August, it’s not really that learning process.”

He and the rest of the offense are all doing that together.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It is a new season with a new coaching staff and the practices and games that matter are still months away, yet the Detroit Lions are still living in the same issued world as last season.

Those receivers, they are struggling to catch passes.

This isn’t a new phenomenon with Detroit, a team that was the worst in the NFL in drop rate last season. Rather, even with a new staff and an emphasis on catching the ball, the Lions are still not completely sharp in that area. Good thing for them games that matter don’t happen until September.

[+] EnlargeJoe Lombardi
Carlos Osorio/AP PhotoOffensive coordinator Joe Lombardi talks with the quarterbacks after the Lions' OTAs on Wednesday.
“Today was a little sloppy, I’m not going to lie to you,” Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “I was getting a little angry today because I thought mostly the drops and, you know, some of the alignments weren’t what you want. And so it was really a concentration issue more than anything.”

It was that concentration that foiled the Lions often last season with a costly turnover, a poor decision, a bad read, or that 7.3 percent drop rate. It was also that concentration -- specifically with hands and with the drops -- the Lions spent part of the offseason trying to fix. It is why the team signed receiver Golden Tate.

It’s also been a mantra of head coach Jim Caldwell to find receivers who can catch passes. Yet Tate, who had one of the top drop rates in the NFL the past few seasons, dropped two passes Wednesday. So did Reggie Bush.

“I think it’s always a concern but I do think there is good hands here,” Lombardi said. “So it’s really a matter of concentration and getting these guys the reps and a lot of it is just getting their comfort level down.

“They are still learning the offense so they are thinking where do I line up, what’s the depth of my route, and I think when they get more comfortable, their concentration will come up a little bit.”

That goes for the pass catchers and the guy throwing them the ball most often, quarterback Matthew Stafford.

He described Lombardi’s offense as “play-intensive, verbage-intensive,” and that can make it difficult to pick up as a lot of Detroit’s players are both learning what Lombardi wants as well as making sure they aren’t confusing it with what former coordinator Scott Linehan ran the past five seasons with the Lions.

The drops were an issue for at least one day so far, Wednesday, as the Lions continue to work the bigger issue: Helping to improve Stafford.

One of the things they worked on was his footwork -- something every coach at every level preaches about along with different ways to work on it. While Stafford wouldn’t divulge what quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter and Lombardi have changed about his footwork, he did say they have brought an alternative to what he learned under Linehan and Todd Downing.

“It’s whatever these coaches brought with them,” Stafford said. “It’s not salsa dancing or anything. It’s football quarterback drills.”

No matter what else Detroit’s coaches tinker with. No matter what else the Lions try to implement, the offense still remains being either as good or as poor as Stafford and the wide receivers -- and on Wednesday, it was a bit rough -- are able to grasp and learn the offense.

“We’re still kind of getting into the swing of our offense, still learning it, still trying to get lined up right but that’s part of OTAs,” Bush said. “We’re not supposed to be perfect right now.

“If we were perfect right now, I’d be a little bit worried.”

Lions offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

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.

[+] EnlargeTate
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWith Golden Tate flanking Calvin Johnson, the Detroit wide receiver depth has greatly improved.
Best move: The Lions desperately needed to upgrade their wide receiver corps and making Golden Tate the biggest priority of the free-agent period ended up being a smart move for the club. They signed a player who can complement Calvin Johnson as well as having some of the best hands in the league. As a bonus, he is a really competent blocker who plays above his size.

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.
IRVING, Texas -- When Scott Linehan walks out on to the practice fields at the Dallas Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility, he can still remember what it was like in 1987.

Part of what was then a state-of-the-art workout area remains today. The camera booths at either end of the field are still in place, too. There are more neighborhood houses in the background, but the feel remains.

[+] EnlargeScott Linehan
Tim Sharp/AP PhotoNew to the team himself, passing coordinator Scott Linehan assists the Cowboys' rookies during minicamp on Friday, May 16.
Linehan was an undrafted free agent out of Idaho in 1987. He was among the cast of thousands Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt brought in for a look. A shoulder injury, however, kept him from showing what he could do. The Cowboys flew him out to Thousand Oaks, California, for training camp and while he did put on a helmet he was cut before he could put on pads.

Twenty-seven years later, Linehan is now the Cowboys' passing game coordinator. He will not put on pads when the Cowboys go to California -- this time to Oxnard, not Thousand Oaks, but his importance to the success of the Cowboys in 2014 cannot be understated.

"Kind of nostalgic for me to be out here for this one," Linehan said after the first day of last week's rookie minicamp.

Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, Linehan will have a free hand in running the offense. Callahan called plays for Jason Garrett's offense and the coach was involved in the playcalling process down the stretch last season, relaying the plays to the quarterback in the huddle.

Linehan will have no middle man. This is his offense. Most of the verbiage will remain the same, since he and Garrett ran similar systems, but there will be changes.

"It would be a disservice to not continue a lot of the great things that Jason and Bill and the guys have implemented here in the past few years," Linehan said. "Then as the timing fits for us ... we get through our OTAs to start to mesh some of the things that make sense."

Not surprisingly, Linehan did not agree with the assertion that the Cowboys have too many voices on offense with Garrett, Callahan and even quarterback Tony Romo, whose involvement in devising game plans will continue in 2014.

"That kind of expertise in one room?" Linehan said. "To have a staff with the qualifications I feel we have is truly a strength."

In 2005, Garrett's first coaching job came under Linehan with the Miami Dolphins. They remained tight over the years and their friendship played a big part in why Linehan came to the Cowboys.

Garrett said they share similar convictions in attacking defenses with the running game and passing game, getting the ball to their playmakers and playing to the players' strengths.

Linehan once directed one of the NFL's best running games with the Minnesota Vikings when Randy Moss was at the top of his game. Steven Jackson had a 1,500-yard season with the St. Louis Rams when Linehan was head coach.

But his most recent five-year run with the Detroit Lions has many convinced Linehan is a pass-happy coordinator, even moreso than Garrett. From 2011-13, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, threw for 14,655 yards and 90 touchdowns with 52 interceptions and Calvin Johnson caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Before 2013, the Lions did not have a running game rank better than 23rd. With the addition of Reggie Bush, Detroit had the 17th-ranked rushing offense.

"Between our first and second back we had almost 1,700 yards rushing," Linehan said. "That was as good as they have done in 10 years. You just lean to your personnel."

The Cowboys will still lean to the pass with Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. But DeMarco Murray is coming off a 1,100-yard season and Zack Martin became the third offensive linemen to be picked in the first round by the Cowboys in the last four years two weeks ago.

"You start with running it effectively," Linehan said. "You achieve balance in the NFL by playing good football throughout three quarters, gaining that lead and then you've got a lead going into the fourth quarter. The teams that run the ball the best, that run the ball balanced, generally are getting a lot of their damage done in that late third, early fourth quarter. You get behind the score then you say you want to do (run the ball). You don't want to abandon it, but you're going to lean toward throwing the ball a little more. So that's to me, I think, the thing with the offensive line, that's a no-brainer. This is a great young front. Added a great piece to it. It was already an offensive line that was really meshing and playing well. We don't have to have this certain look to run the ball. We feel like we can line up and say hey, if they're going to drop guys into the box, we still feel like we've got the guys that can get it done. And then that helps everything. That opens everything on the outside of the field."

Rebuilding RG III's game

May, 1, 2014
May 1
Robert Griffin IIIHunter Martin/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III believes offseason work on his mechanics will translate to the field this fall.
ASHBURN, Va. -- The changes should result, they hope, in improved mechanics and consistent throws and more success from the pocket. The science involved can explain how one aspect ties to another, helping Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III return to his pre-injury form.

There is also this: Griffin just feels better with the changes. For all the impact the alterations in his mechanics have physically, they are also about fixing the mental game. If Griffin feels better about his base, for example, it will result in a more relaxed passer -- and better throws. Just like a batter in baseball likes the subtleties of his stance. Certain parts must be the same through the ball, but the entire goal is to feel comfortable at the plate. The same is true in the pocket.

And it’s clear: Griffin feels more comfortable throwing the way he is now.

“Just fixing those little things so I can get back to playing the game and the brand of football I know how to play,” he said.

Griffin’s time to prove that he’s back to what he was -- and what everyone thought he would be -- will be this summer and fall. But now is the time to perfect areas he could not last offseason. That is why he spent six days working in Arizona with quarterback coach Terry Shea, with whom he worked before the 2012 draft. They narrowed his base. They altered how he stepped with his front foot.

Though Griffin said his play last season wasn’t as bad as he thought, he also saw the need to improve.

“It showed me what I have to do in my game to play an effective way,” he said. “Base. Quick release. Where I hold the ball. All those things I was able to work on with coach Shea. It was getting back to a lot of things I was doing before, to fix up some of the technique that I was being coached before.”

Here’s what Shea worked on with Griffin:

Start from the waist down

When Griffin was at Baylor, his base was typically more narrow and his weight transfer was stronger. His transfer was fine as a rookie, but this past season it was not. So Shea worked every morning with Griffin for 40 minutes, focusing in part on the lower body.

They worked on the angle of his plant foot. They worked on setting harder on his back foot, allowing him to drive through his throws. For whatever reason in 2013 -- his right knee of course being tops on the list -- Griffin did not do this.

“I didn’t believe he was planting that back foot in a position where he could transfer over the front and use his lower body,” Shea said. “We worked on making sure he was transferring through on his throws.”

Shea said this wasn’t an issue in the games he watched Griffin play as a rookie.

“It seemed like the second year when he missed, a lot of his passes were high and that’s a product of not coming down over the top well enough,” Shea said, “He really addressed that during our six days. He was back on track.”

Griffin wants to feel comfortable with how he plays. Reducing his base to shoulder width helps. For Shea it’s about comfort, yes, but also about accuracy. And when Griffin’s left foot is pointed where he wants to throw, he’s more accurate.

Griffin has a knack for being able to fling a pass in the pocket, useful in situations where he can’t get his feet turned towards the target. But there were too many times when Griffin failed to get his feet around in situations he could have done so, something Shea witnessed as well. They worked on making sure Griffin was aligned to the target, with his front foot and shoulder.

“[Last season] Robert was just not working his base quick enough,” Shea said. “Consequently he got into some back-foot throwing. Sometimes quarterbacks end up throwing all with their arm, and most of the time it’s inaccurate. It has to become second nature, but you have to drill it every day.”

Ball positioning

Griffin dismissed the idea that reading defenses was a problem. Or something that caused a slower release at times.

“It wasn’t an issue at all,” he said. “I know from rookie year to last year, ‘He’s not reading defenses. Defenses are doing different things.’ Defenses played us the same way last year. It wasn’t a lack of reading defenses. I read defenses my rookie year, I read defenses last year and I’m going to read defenses this year, too.”

Rather, he said his offseason focus was on where he held the ball. Shea wants him holding the ball at the numbers or letters. When it slips lower, as it would last season, it caused him to take a split second longer to throw -- he’d have to bring it back up, then back as opposed to just bringing it back.

Shea said he would have Griffin throw to stationary targets every morning, only focusing on arm speed and not accuracy. Then he would have Griffin cross over a line with his feet, waiting for Shea to shout, ‘Ball!’ before throwing.

“The game is so fast that arm speed better be there,” Shea said. “It starts with where he loads the ball up.”

Griffin needs more throws like one he made in 2012 against Philadelphia. He faked a bubble screen to Brandon Banks, then quickly flipped his feet around and hit Leonard Hankerson downfield for 21 yards. He couldn’t step into the throw as much because of pocket congestion. But he had a quick release -- the ball was up -- and it was accurate because of his feet.

“Of all the quarterbacks I ever worked with, Robert is one of the top two in terms of arm speed,” Shea said. “The other one was Matthew Stafford. That’s what makes the real special NFL quarterbacks.

“Robert is great to work with because I can give him one thing in an adjustment and it takes him one or two reps to get him corrected. He’s very good with translating the information.”

Griffin still needs to work on perfecting his fundamentals. But if nothing else he’s regained a comfort level he did not feel in 2013. But the tough part comes in the fall: making sure the offseason work translates into in-season success.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – He’s able to come in and meet with his coaches now, finally able to pick their brains about what the new Detroit Lions offense will look like. What he might be expected to do under his new coaching staff that he didn’t have to do before.

Already this week, Matthew Stafford has spent time watching old game tape of both the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens offenses to try and learn. He’s studied the routes those receivers ran, the varying plays both teams implemented.

He knows it won’t all be the same and he anticipates having a lot of questions – but it’s a start.

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDetroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a fixture in the film room during the offseason.
“It’s exciting. These guys have great track records, have worked with some really great players at the quarterback position, specifically,” Stafford said. “I’ll be picking their brains as much as they’ll allow. Obviously Golden [Tate] is a big-time addition to our team.

“He’s going to be a big contributor this year and we’re excited to have him.”

Much of the offseason has been focused around Stafford because of what happened to Detroit at the end of last season. The Lions collapsed at the end of the 2013 season, eventually costing former coach Jim Schwartz his job, mostly due to an inefficient offense prone on drops from receivers and turnovers from Stafford.

So look at what the Lions did this offseason. They hired a head coach, Jim Caldwell, and quarterbacks coach, Jim Bob Cooter, who has worked with Peyton Manning. They hired an offensive coordinator -- Joe Lombardi -- whose main experience was as the quarterbacks coach for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Their two biggest free-agent signings were pass-catchers – Tate and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. They also brought back another big offensive piece, Joique Bell, to complement Reggie Bush.

The focus has been offensive at almost every turn, all to help Stafford be the best version of himself as a quarterback. He also recognizes for the Lions to be good, he has to be good.

“In the NFL, if your quarterback plays really well, your team generally plays really well, and I understand that. We’re no different than any team,” Stafford said. “The better I play, the better we’ll play as a team. Common theory says that. Nobody puts more pressure on me than I do. I want to be as good as I can possibly be, not for myself but to help this team win, and that’s the No. 1 goal.”

Stafford said he has not spoken with Brees about Lombardi but had texted with Manning about Caldwell and the progression Manning made under his former head coach. Since the hiring of this staff, that has been the focus of the questions -- how will they work with Stafford to turn him from a good quarterback with inconsistencies and some accuracy issues into one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

“He’s a sharp guy,” Caldwell said. “He’s smart. He’s dedicated. He wants to be good and still, it’s obviously quite present in his attitude today, yesterday and tomorrow, right? He’s a worker. I have no doubt, with a guy that has that kind of attitude and obviously he has ability, both physically and mentally.

“He has the intellect to do it and I think he’ll be fine.”

Stafford has already put some of the work in by grabbing the old game film to understand the receiver route trees he might now be throwing to as opposed to what he worked with under Scott Linehan. He doesn’t know the terminology yet -- that’ll come -- because the offensive installation has been in meeting-form only thus far.

He knows he needs to improve and make smarter, better decisions. From what he says, he’s committed to doing so. That’ll start now, by making sure he learns as much as possible and asks so many questions it is almost like he’s turning into a reporter.

“I think I can always improve. I’ve had some really great moments, some bad moments, for sure,” Stafford said. “But the biggest thing I want to do is help this team win any way I can. I’m going to be learning a new system and I want to be coached in that system as well as I can.

“I don’t know everything there is to know about this system, for sure, and so I’m going to ask a bunch of questions and do everything as right as I possibly can.”

Detroit’s success depends on it.