Calvin Johnson has long been considered the toughest wide receiver to cover in the NFL. His combination of physical gifts and crafted tools have turned the 6-foot-5 Detroit Lions stalwart into a nightmare in real life.
The same goes for his virtual likeness in "Madden NFL 15."
Johnson is the top-rated receiver in this year's Madden franchise with a 99 overall rating -- the top possible rating a player can have.
"Just how good is Calvin Johnson," Madden ratings czar Donny Moore writes on the EA Sports website. "Best hands in NFL: check (98 catch/99 spectacular catch -- both ranked first in NFL). Physical monster: check (95 speed/98 jump/99 release). He is even a top-ten (sic) run blocker among wideouts."
All of this is fairly accurate for Johnson, who is coming off another 1,000-yard season completed despite injuries to his finger and knee that required offseason surgery. He's fully healthy now, which means his real-life persona should once again match up with his virtual ability to do almost anything in Madden.
He is followed in the receiver rankings by Brandon Marshall (96 overall), Andre Johnson (95 overall), A.J. Green (95 overall), and Dez Bryant (94 overall).
The Madden folks also released tight end rankings Thursday and no Lions tight ends are on it. Rookie Eric Ebron, though, said his overall rating in the game is a 77 and he was planning to write a letter -- we think he was saying this facetiously -- to Moore complaining about his rank.
And now, a look around the Interwebs in search of Lions news (which there is because of Ndamukong Suh):
- The Lions are not optimistic about signing Suh to a deal before training camp. They should now be concerned. Rookie quarterback James Franklin has a long adjustment to the NFL game from college. Larry Warford is one of the top 25 NFL players under 25. Our positional preview continues with a look at the safeties. Once the season gets going, I'll be using this public Facebook page more so you should come over and like it.
- Bryce Quigley is working hard to learn the Lions' system, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
- Josh Katzenstein from the Detroit News has 10 things to watch for as camp starts Sunday and Monday.
- Rookie center Travis Swanson hopes to contribute after working through early jitters, writes Justin Rogers in MLive.
Even though he switched agents this offseason and there always appeared to be something keeping negotiations between Suh and the Lions from progressing, there was optimism the two sides would come to a deal by the time training camp started.
With it, the Lions can officially become concerned about whether or not Suh will be with the team beyond this season. Suh has seemed like a player who would not want to have contract discussions during a season, especially if he is now potentially playing for a new deal either with Detroit or elsewhere.
It would behoove the Lions to say they would not negotiate during the season. Doing so gives a timeline for any real negotiations and eliminates what would otherwise be a constant distraction for a franchise needing to minimize them at every possible cost.
This leaves Detroit and the Suh’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, with two potential windows to hatch a deal -- if there is even the true desire to do so: Either between the start of training camp and the beginning of the season, or between the end of the season and the start of free agency.
If the Lions were smart, they would push to not have Suh play out the season with free agency looming. Another huge season from him and he may want to test free agency no matter what, just to see what he could command on the open market as one of the top players at his position.
Either way, the concern about Ndamukong Suh is now real and it should lead to an interesting few weeks as a sidebar to Detroit’s training camp.
This also sets up one of the worst-case scenarios for Detroit when it chose to decline the fifth-year option on fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley. If Suh does not get a deal done, there is a real chance the team could lose their first-round picks from 2010 and 2011 after 2014.
It would decimate the interior of a defensive line the Lions built around the past few seasons.
Of course, the Lions can keep Fairley around by either tagging him or re-signing him if he has the season Detroit is hoping for.
None of this is to say Suh is wrong at all. He has every right to have his agent negotiate the best possible deal for him considering the finite nature of his profession. It is exactly what Suh is paying Sexton for.
But if Suh really wants to be in Detroit and really wants to help the Lions turn into a winning franchise, he would push his agent to finish a deal before Sept. 8, when the Lions play on "Monday Night Football" against the Giants.
A team source told ESPN's Chris Mortensen the team is not optimistic a deal will happen before training camp begins Monday. Veterans are scheduled to report Sunday.
Suh's contract negotiations have been one of the biggest issues for the Lions this offseason. Due to restructuring on his original rookie contract, he is due $22.4 million against the salary cap this season. Furthermore, if the Lions are unable to re-sign him, they would have to decide whether to use the franchise tag on him for the 2015 season, which would come at a cost of $26.7 million.
This is the first shift in the Lions' stance toward being able to bring back Suh. Throughout the first few months of the offseason, both team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew expressed confidence they would be able to sign Suh to an extension and also said Suh indicated to them he wanted to remain in Detroit.
"Ndamukong has said he wants to stay and we want him to stay," Lewand said in March. "Generally when that happens, you can get a deal in place."
He didn’t know for sure, though, there would be none at all.
For a player trying to win a spot as the No. 3 quarterback on the 53-man roster or the practice squad, Franklin had a bit of a detriment to making the team.
There was so much to pick up. There was so little time to accomplish it. This was the biggest issue for the former Missouri quarterback, who, prior to May said he had never truly taken a five-or-seven-step drop during his time with the Tigers.
Missouri played a spread system, so everything he did came off a three-step drop or a little shuffle of his feet. There wouldn’t be a pocket created for him, per se, with the Tigers. These were things he had to learn fast, so he understood that until he picked them up, he wasn’t going to move past Dan Orlovsky or Kellen Moore into receiving actual snaps while those two quarterbacks were also learning the offense.
Franklin knew this would be an issue as he entered the league, even as he jumps into a system that will likely employ a lot of shotgun and some elements of the spread offense without the quarterback running.
Even though he didn’t actually take a meaningful offseason snap -- and Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Franklin will receive the majority of snaps during preseason games -- Franklin began to understand the importance of staying in the pocket to help the offensive line protect him.
The learning, though, went beyond improving and adjusting his footwork to drop back correctly. It also hit on the plays themselves.
“I’ve definitely been going over the plays over and over, reciting the plays, because learning the plays isn’t actually that bad,” Franklin said. “It’s just the long play calls that I have to be getting used to. That’s something I think I’ve gotten a little bit better at and hopefully I won’t worry about it too much so I can just go out there and play football.”
Franklin said reciting play calls is his biggest concern entering camp, in part because like the new drops he has never done it before. His offense at Missouri was run using signals and short calls. This was his biggest immediate transition during rookie minicamp and continued to follow him throughout the spring.
The spring was for learning, though. Now, he has to win a job.
“I wish we could have done some more of (play calls) in college to kind of prepare me, but I can’t make excuses now,” Franklin said. “I just have to work with what I have.”
And hope that what he has is good enough.
Now, Warford is beginning to be recognized as a major talent for the future. ESPN colleagues Mike Sando and Mel Kiper Jr. placed him at No. 19 on their 25 under 25 list for the top non-rookies in the league under 25.
Warford was the only Lions player to make the list or even be considered -- slotted between Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard and Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
One quick caveat here -- this list would likely have had at least a couple of more Lions, but receiver Golden Tate and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah are both already 25 years old, making them ineligible.
To see the full list, check out this link.
Starter: SS – James Ihedigbo; FS – Glover Quin
Depth (in training camp): Don Carey, Isa Abdul-Quddus, DeJon Gomes, Jerome Couplin, Gabe Lynn.
Likely roster spots: 4.
What to expect in camp: For a position in the secondary, there is surprising stability at safety for the Lions along with some flexibility if and when injuries occur. Glover Quin will be the team’s free safety and one of the defense’s leaders. If necessary, the Lions could slide him over as well. James Ihedigbo, who the team brought in during the offseason to replace Louis Delmas, is a reliable, stable option as the starter opposite Quin.
Behind the two of them is where it becomes a little bit more interesting. Don Carey, who signed a three-year deal in the offseason, is the likely third safety and should provide some depth at nickel. He could theoretically back up both spots and will be a major factor in special teams.
Isa Abdul-Quddus and DeJon Gomes, while playing different safety spots, might be competing for one roster slot. Both have good special-teams skills, and this should be one of the more competitive battles in camp. The better special-teams player might end up as the one who makes the roster. There’s also a chance, depending on how the rest of the roster develops, both end up squeezing onto the squad but it will be difficult.
The undrafted rookies, specifically the extremely athletic Jerome Couplin, could end up with a practice squad spot if they show enough during camp, but neither are real threats at this point of making the 53-man roster.
What Detroit needs to see: It knows what it has in Quin, who played well despite an injury last season. The Lions also need a good chemistry to develop between Quin and Iheidgbo – similar to what Quin and Delmas had a season ago. There was a comfort with both of them until Delmas’ play started to slip in the second half of the season.
After that, the Lions need to see a competence with the backups – that shouldn’t be an issue because all have some level of experience starting games in the secondary in the past – and strong special-teams performances from all three. For a position group in the secondary with so many questions, safety might have one of the more talented roster groups from starters to backups on the roster.
The other key here is how the two starters mesh with the cornerbacks as the corner-safety tandem is just as important as the relationship between the two starting safeties. Detroit needs to see that grow throughout the preseason, especially since corner is the biggest question on the defense and might be the biggest overall concern on the roster.
In almost every job before this one, the term Bubble Watch meant one thing -- the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments. It was a rite of every March, charting who was in, who was out and what games really mattered.
Now in the NFL, the Bubble Watch takes on an entirely different meaning. Roster spots are the prize now, and the reality of a man's livelihood and ability to pay the bills hangs with every rep, every practice and every injury.
Entering camp, a lot of back-end jobs on the Detroit Lions are up for grabs. Here are five guys to pay attention to for spots on the end of the roster.
Running back/fullback Montell Owens: The veteran reworked his deal and stayed with the Lions after a lost 2013 season due to injuries. Owens is an interesting case because he could theoretically play fullback or running back. If he is good enough to be one or both, he becomes a valuable roster asset along with a special teams standout who could bump Jed Collins or Mikel Leshoure from the roster. If he can't prove himself as a hybrid back, he might be out of a job.
Offensive guard Rodney Austin: A couple of weeks ago, Austin looked like he had the inside track to a roster spot as a swing center/guard with Travis Swanson, as the two would eventually replace Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims. Then the Lions signed veteran Garrett Reynolds, who was an NFL starter last season with Atlanta and was one of two Falcons' offensive linemen who played over 500 snaps to grade out positively according to Pro Football Focus. With the team invested in Swanson, Austin now has major competition for a roster spot.
Linebacker Travis Lewis: The Lions aren't dropping starters DeAndre Levy or Stephen Tulloch, and Kyle Van Noy is a valued rookie. Ashlee Palmer could end up beating out Van Noy initially for a starting spot, and Tahir Whitehead is a valuable special teams player. Depending on how many linebackers the Lions keep and their importance on special teams, Lewis could make the team or lose out to a cornerback, safety, receiver or perhaps a fellow linebacker such as Julian Stanford, who was signed after Lewis was suspended for four games to close out last season.
Safety DeJon Gomes: Much like Lewis, Gomes' roster spot might not be dependent as much on the other safeties as it is the special teams composition between corners, safeties, linebackers, receivers, and even running backs. Gomes is a good special teams player but might end up as the fifth safety behind starters Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo along with the versatile Don Carey and possibly Isa Abdul-Quddus. The competition for Gomes is likely Abdul-Quddus and then players such as Lewis and Stanford.
And now, a look around the Interwebs in search of Lions news:
- Golden Tate, Ezekiel Ansah and TJ Jones will start camp on the active PUP list. What Tate and Ansah's absence means for other players, including some of the ones mentioned above. A look at the Detroit cornerbacks entering training camp. This week's NFL Nation Buzz video focuses on Eric Ebron.
- Camp starting means the return of Question of the Week -- focusing on the things rookies are most nervous about. Want to suggest a Question of the Week? Do it on my new public Facebook page (tell your friends).
- Theo Riddick gets praised by former and current teammate TJ Jones, writes Dave Birkett in the Detroit Free Press.
- Quarterback James Franklin is looking for a roster spot, writes Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News.
- Kyle Meinke from MLive wonders if Riddick is for real or another spring mirage.
- A note without a link: Titus Young's latest court case for five charges of battery (one felony, four misdemeanor) was continued until Aug. 22 in Compton, California.
- Jon Solomon from CBS Sports writes that college players want their NCAA Football video games back (Full disclosure: I miss the game, too).
Still, the Detroit Lions can't be happy to see their No. 2 receiver and a player they gave a five-year contract to on the shelf to start training camp, especially since he and the rest of the team are still learning a complex offense helmed by new coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Tate indicated when he injured the shoulder he had a good amount of the playbook and terminology picked up and was taking mental reps to try and replicate his physical ones. And he has the intelligence to understand the offense even quicker.
The bigger concern if he is out for any length of time during the preseason is his chemistry with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Timing and rapport takes repetitions both Tate and TJ Jones -- also on the active physically unable to perform list -- will be missing with each practice they have to sit out.
For Jones, starting camp on PUP isn't a surprise after he indicated earlier this week his shoulder still wasn't 100 percent. Of the three players on PUP to start the season, he may be the one on there the longest considering he had surgery not too long ago and will be playing catch-up from the jump with other receivers.
Then there's Ezekiel Ansah, who missed all of spring workouts. He's a player the Lions will likely be cautious with. Ansah battled injuries throughout last season and this particular shoulder ailment was something the team recognized before it drafted him.
In addition to the shoulder, Ansah had a concussion and an ankle injury during his first season. Considering the team let Willie Young go in free agency, it needed a healthy Ansah to complement the interior play of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley once the season begins.
The secondary benefit for other players is the chance to impress. The biggest beneficiaries of these players starting training camp on the PUP list will be Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross -- who will likely be competing for a reserve outside receiver role, although Ross can also play in the slot.
On the defensive side, rookie Larry Webster could see extended repetitions in Ansah's absence along with hybrid defensive end/linebacker Darryl Tapp and even Devin Taylor, who will be competing for a starting spot at the closed defensive end position with Jason Jones.
As long as Tate and Ansah are ready to go by the middle of camp to get the reps needed to ramp up for the start of the season, this could end up being a benefit for Detroit to give other players competing for roster spots even more of an opportunity to prove themselves.
The Detroit Lions will begin training camp with two starters and one rookie on the active physically unable to perform list.
The team designated wide receiver Golden Tate, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and wide receiver T.J. Jones on the PUP list when official transactions came out Wednesday. As members of the active PUP list, they can be moved to the active roster at any time.
Ansah missed spring workouts while recovering from shoulder surgery, and Jones had surgery to repair his shoulder toward the end of spring workouts. Tate injured his shoulder during spring workouts.
There has been no indication any of the three will miss any time during the regular season, but Lions coach Jim Caldwell is scheduled to address the media for the first time this season Sunday when veterans report to camp.
Ansah led all rookies with eight sacks in 14 games and is expected to start at open defensive end this fall. Detroit signed Tate to a five-year, $31 million contract during free agency in March and drafted Jones with a sixth-round pick in May.
Jones said he hurt his shoulder during the Pinstripe Bowl, his final college game with Notre Dame.
It's yards per attempt.
"I think it's meaningful," passing game coordinator Scott Linehan said of the yards-per-attempt stat. "That's a number that's shown up for teams that are explosive on offense. To get that up, you've got to have a fair number of big, explosive plays in the passing game. If you throw the ball 100 times but your yards per attempt is somewhat low you're probably having to spend a lot of time on the field to score."
From 2006-2009, Romo had the highest yards per attempt in the league at 8.1 He had 129 passes of at least 25 yards during that span, which was second in the league. He and Terrell Owens were an explosive duo. From 2011-2013, Romo had a 7.57 yard-per-attempt average, which is 11th best in the league. He had just 28 passes of 25 yards or more in 15 games last season, one more than he had in 10 starts in 2006.
Even with the low yards per attempt (by his standards) Romo completed just 63.9 percent of his passes last season, his lowest since 2009 when he completed 63.1 percent.
"Tony's a great quarterback and I think he's a great fit," Linehan said. "If you play in the NFL you want to be able to attack all parts of the field. He's one of the guys in this league I think of that understands that throughout his career. It's easy to say, but you've got to have the mindset for it and the guys to do it and I believe we have both."
Linehan comes to the Cowboys with a reputation of taking shots, but Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford averaged 7 yards per attempt in his career and 7.3 yards last season.
"It's not 'careless aggression,' but you've got to have the idea that when people are lined up in, I guess, a mode where they're kind of squeezing the field on you and adding people in the run game, I think you've got to be able to have that threat," Linehan said. "It's not always the case, but I think it's 'the threat of that being something they will do,' is what we have to in our offense."
Yes, there are many positions to be won or lost and injuries could change the entire dynamic of some of these position battles. Right now, though, there are precious few starting slots to be won.
Here, though, are a look at five important battles for the composition of the Lions' roster entering the 2014 season with an early prediction of who wins the slots.
The battle: Nate Freese vs. Giorgio Tavecchio
Why this is important: The Lions are searching for their third starting kicker in as many seasons after the retirement of Jason Hanson following the 2012 season, and then a poor performance from David Akers in 2013. The team is specifically looking toward a younger kicker this time around, as neither Freese nor Tavecchio have kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is the more accurate of the two, having made all of his field goals last season for Boston College and was drafted in the seventh round by the Lions in May. Tavecchio has spent the past two training camps attempting to earn his way onto a roster, but was eventually cut from San Francisco and Green Bay. This is his third shot at a job and possibly his most realistic chance to make a team. Tavecchio has a stronger leg than Freese and if he can show accuracy, he could end up pushing the rookie hard.
Who wins: Freese (but it's close).
The battle: LaAdrian Waddle vs. Corey Hilliard
Why this is important: The other four positions on the offensive line, barring injury, are fairly set with Larry Warford and Rob Sims at guard, Riley Reiff at left tackle and Dominic Raiola at center. The right tackle slot, though, should have some actual competition. Both Waddle and Hilliard started games there last season and Waddle would have never received the starting opportunity had Hilliard (and the since-departed Jason Fox) not been hurt. Considering the success of Detroit's offensive line last season, particularly in pass protection, there is pressure on the unit to replicate 2013's success in 2014. Both Waddle and Hilliard should make the roster, but who wins this battle could make a difference for line chemistry.
Who wins: Waddle, but Hilliard keeps it interesting.
The battle: Ryan Broyles vs. Jeremy Ross vs. TJ Jones (maybe)
Why is this important: This is an interesting scenario because of the many options the Lions have as pass-catchers. If the team wanted, both Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron could line up in the slot and depending where pieces are placed on the field, both will end up there at some point. But from a pure slot perspective, it'll be a fairly tight competition. The main question with Broyles is his health. He has not played a full season since the middle of his college career and will be pushed throughout camp by Ross, who is the team's primary returner. Broyles insisted this spring he is healthy for the first time in a long time and Ross has a stated goal of becoming more than a returner in the league. If Ross wins the job and the Lions feel rookie TJ Jones can be productive in the slot, too, Broyles' roster spot could be in question. If Broyles wins the gig, all three of these players will likely end up on the roster, possibly squeezing out an outside receiver or running back.
Who wins: If he's healthy, Broyles.
CLOSED DEFENSIVE END
The battle: Jason Jones vs. Devin Taylor
Why is this important: Considering the attention given to Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah, this spot is often forgotten on the line. However, if the Lions are going to have success pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run, the competition between Jones and Taylor will be an important one. Jones, who was signed before last season, was a starter before a season-ending knee injury. Taylor emerged in his absence and became a productive player in spot duty. Taylor's length and athleticism make him intriguing here and both he and Jones can play both on the interior and at end.
Who wins: Taylor, but both will play a lot of snaps.
The battle: Ashlee Palmer vs. Kyle Van Noy
Why is this important: How critical this position is will depend on both the week and the scheme the Lions plan on running. If Detroit has to use mostly nickel, neither Palmer nor Van Noy will be on the field a ton. If the Lions go with a 4-3, then there will be both pass rush and coverage expectations here. At some point, Van Noy will be the starter, but the bigger question is how ready he is. If he is, he should win this competition and throw Palmer's roster spot in flux. If Van Noy is not ready, then Palmer -- the incumbent on the final season of his deal -- will hold on to his role for a little while longer.
Who wins: Van Noy.
Depth (in training camp): Bill Bentley, Cassius Vaughn, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green, Nevin Lawson, Aaron Hester, Mohammed Seisay
Likely roster spots: 5-6.
What to expect in camp: This will be one of the most intense battles in training camp, from a starting slot all the way through the end of the roster and even the practice squad. The main reason for this is other than veteran Mathis, none of the cornerbacks on the roster have proven anything with consistency.
Slay will slide into a starter's role in his second season with the club, but his rookie season had the predictable unpredictability. Throughout spring workouts, Slay consistently appeared as a cornerback capable of going through the necessary maturity from his rookie season. Some of that had to do with hints received from his work with Rod Woodson during the offseason.
Beyond Slay and Mathis is a bunch of questions. Bentley should end up as the team's nickel back, although he'll likely be pushed there by safety Don Carey and the rookie Lawson. Expect him to hold on to the job, though, as he is the most confident he has ever been in the pros.
The other outside corners are a major question. Assuming Bentley and Lawson end up at nickel, there will be a couple spots for Vaughn, Greenwood, Green, Hester or undrafted rookie Seisay.
This is where the real competition will come. Vaughn looked the best of the group during the spring, but the team has invested more in Green and Greenwood and they are at the point in their careers where something has to be more consistent for them.
Don't expect all three to make the team, but figure at least one or two of them will end up on the roster. Pay particular attention to this during camp as it would not be surprising to see at least one of them end up in a critical situation in 2014.
What Detroit needs to see: Growth from everyone other than Mathis. The Lions know what they are getting in the veteran, who should have at least one more season of playing at a consistent, decent level.
With pads on and the ability to press, the Lions need to see steps from the other players, though. Both Bentley and Slay have insisted at various points this spring that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's new defense fits their style of play better -- but they have to prove that now.
If the Lions don't see proper progression from these players, this will be a major, major concern for 2014 and will only call into more question the decisions made by general manager Martin Mayhew to focus more on offense during free agency and early in the draft instead of bolstering the biggest positional question mark on the roster.
The best possible situation for Detroit here is one or two of the cornerbacks behind Slay and Mathis play so well during camp they are no-brainers to keep on the roster, and the four of them can have more reps than everyone else. The other potential good situation for the Lions is that players like Green -- who put himself on a roster bubble after the spring -- to play so well he forces tough decisions for the staff to make on cutdown day in August.
The worst situation is similar to that -- that decisions are tough to make, but mostly because the team is picking from the best of a very mediocre lot of players. Considering the experience levels of the players competing, any of these possibilities could happen.
Don't be surprised if the team signs a veteran here at some point as well, much like they did with Mathis a season ago.
Last season’s Questions of the Week.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- They showed up in courtesy vans and their own automobiles, in groups and on their own.
Rookies reported to Detroit Lions training camp on Tuesday to begin their first forays into a true NFL season. For some, it is their one chance to make the squad. For others, it is an opportunity to move up the depth chart and possibly steal a starting position.
They will be the youngest players in camp and likely among the most nervous at first, which led to the obvious first Question of the Week for the 2014 season.
Rookies, what are you most nervous about entering training camp?
Receiver TJ Jones: Probably that first big hit. They always talk about it’s faster, they are faster, bigger, stronger in the NFL, which they are, so, really taking that first blindside or not really seeing someone coming and they take you out. Getting that first one out of the way.
Guard Bryce Quigley: It’s a brand new experience for me, so I’m not sure what to expect. I’m just really excited to be here.
offensive lineman Travis Swanson: It’s kind of hard to pinpoint. I think I was most nervous when I first came in here after the draft. You don’t know what to expect. Now, you kind of do, so It’s kind of hard to pinpoint what you’re most nervous about.
Quarterback James Franklin: Honestly just getting the play calls down. I feel confident knowing the plays and being able to execute them. It’s just being able to remember to tell everyone else in the huddle what they need to do.