By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Entering the eighth year of his pro career, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson still exhibits the freakish talent and relentless work ethic that made him a superstar. The Lions want to keep Johnson at the top of his game as long as possible, and the maintenance plan includes keeping a close eye on what Johnson does during practices, which he often had to miss last season because of lingering injuries.
“This is a difficult game to go out there with an intent of just keeping somebody healthy – it doesn’t happen very often,” head coach Jim Caldwell said Tuesday. “But obviously, we monitor everything. We monitor with every single player, not just Calvin, but every single guy just in terms of the workload, how much they’re working, and try to be smart about it.”
Johnson, revered among teammates for how hard he prepares as much as for his otherworldly talent, has had to take the foot off the gas pedal occasionally in the interest of avoiding injuries.
“I’m older now, I’m not diving for the ball anymore,” Johnson said with a smile. “Coach Caldwell, he puts a big emphasis on us staying off the ground. I don’t see a lot of the reps that I’m used to seeing. They’ll come, but I’m used to being out there every play, playing every play of the game. That’s just what I’m used to, but they’re putting me in. Like I said, I’m not playing every play of practice, but they’re working me in, and I’m out there trying to get my extra running in after so I can keep my wind up.”
Another way the Lions plan to keep Johnson fresh is by providing quarterback Matthew Stafford with plenty of other options, so ideally Johnson will not have to shoulder the load offensively.
“That guy right there [Eric Ebron] and Golden [Tate], those guys are going to be big focal points on the offense this year, they’re going to make a lot of plays for us this year … get the ball down the field and increase our scoring chances,” Johnson said, pointing to Ebron, who had playfully joined the crowd of reporters in front of the podium. “Yes, I’m going to be out there, I’m going to make big plays, but those guys are going to help us out a ton.”
Ebron, the team’s first-round pick this season, dropped a few balls in practice Tuesday, but Caldwell did not seem concerned. All young players take time to adjust to the pro game, he said. Also, learning several positions, as Ebron will do, is no small feat.
“It’s tough,” Caldwell said. “One thing I think that people don’t quite understand about playing a tight end position – you can probably notice that he lines up in a number of different places. He lines up in a true tight end position, so he’s got to know all the blocking schemes, routes from there. He lines up at an auxiliary sort of – what we call an F, so he’s got to know all the protections from that particular location as well as the routes. And then we also put him in the backfield.
“So this guy literally has to know the slot receiver, the regular tight end and also a position out of the backfield as if he’s a fullback. So it’s not easy for him,” Caldwell added. “So he’s got to learn and adjust, and there’s a lot of things going through his mind right now, but I think you’re going to see that he’ll just continue to improve, get a little bit better, because he does have an unusual skill set.”
Ebron has utilized the veterans around him, asking for advice, particularly after he makes a mistake.
“Whenever he has an issue, whenever something comes up, like, how do you place your hands? If he drops a ball, he might say something to me,” Johnson said. “Whenever he’s out there outside, running the routes that we run, he asked me some of the footwork I use. I try to give him everything I can.”
The Lions – and their fans – have high expectations of Ebron, who was greeted with raucous cheers from the crowd awaiting his signature after Tuesday’s practice.
Similarly, the Lions hope they have found an effective complement to Johnson in Tate, whom they signed from the Seattle Seahawks.
Johnson lauded Tate’s experience, mentioning the Super Bowl win, and noted Tate’s toughness, referencing Tate’s willingness to stay in practice even when he had a shoulder injury that eventually landed him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, from which the Lions removed him right before the start of training camp.
“Golden’s very savvy, very savvy route runner,” Johnson said. “Coming off of that little shoulder injury he had, he’s looking real good out there for missing a lot of the time that he did in the OTAs, so it’s very good to see him just in stride with us out there on the offense.”
While Caldwell certainly wants Johnson, Tate and Ebron to produce, he also wants the players farther down on the depth chart to be prepared. The philosophy, predictably, extends to every position, and so throughout practices the Lions often use both their fields, which Caldwell said differs from how many other NFL teams practice.
“We try and make certain that we get everybody reps,” Caldwell said. “It’s more of a rep chart than a depth chart at times, particularly when you see us working on the other field because what we’re trying to do – most teams you’ll see have those guys standing around kind of watching one group. We try and spread it out a little bit so we can try to build some depth as part of building our foundation. So we try to get as many as we can with some of those guys that are going to be helping us, particularly during the preseason and also in backup and support roles.”