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2010 Season Breakdown: Receivers

The Lions committed a lot of resources in the 2010 offseason to find players to take attention away from Calvin Johnson after he spent 2009 facing constant triple teams.  The front office broke the bank for Nate Burleson on the first day of free agency, traded for Tony Scheffler, drafted Jahvid Best and hoped that Brandon Pettigrew would make a complete recovery from his ACL surgery.  Mission accomplished.

Calvin Johnson is the most talented player at his position in the league hands down.  Sure Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson are more accomplished, but nobody matches Calvin’s level of talent or potential.  Calvin Johnson was named a starter in the Pro Bowl despite playing with three different quarterbacks.  In 2008 he lead the league in touchdowns with 12, was in the top five in receiving yards and was the biggest Pro Bowl snub in recent memory.  He did that with five different quarterbacks throwing to him.

Calvin Johnson played one full game with Matthew Stafford in 2010 and had 9 catches for 101 yards, three touchdowns and a two point conversion.  Calvin has only begun to scratch the surface of his ability and he’s still only 25 years old.  The future is bright for the Lions’ offense as long as number 81 is on the field.

Calvin Johnson:No receiver in the game strikes fear into defenses like Calvin Johnson does.  At 6’5″ 236 lbs he runs a 4.3 and has a vertical of 42 inches.  Johnson had a monster season this year despite the injuries at quarterback and running back and he finally got the national media’s attention.  The only knock on Calvin is he hasn’t proven to be a consistent week in and week out performer as he had three catches or less in three of his fifteen games this year.  Some of that can be attributed to the injuries to the quarterbacks and running backs, as well as his own injuries as he played through shoulder and ankle injuries.  But he needs to take that next step and carry his team in times like those.  While CJ’s size is a huge asset, it is also a liability at times.  Calvin is so tall that he is a huge target for linebackers and safeties when he makes catches over the middle and he takes some major hits.  He’s a tough player and played through a number of injuries, but he can’t take hits like that forever and only suffer minor injuries.  Calvin and Stafford put a lot of time in last offseason building chemistry and it showed when they were on the field together, the key for 2011 is keeping the two of them there more often.  2011 Outlook: Calvin Johnson is the elite receiver in the league and he will remain a centerpiece of the offense.  If he and Stafford stay healthy all year he could very well threaten some of the league receiving records.

Nate Burleson: Burleson had an average year by the numbers, 55 catches 655 yards and 6 Tds while adding 81 rushing yards on seven carries as well.  The numbers don’t tell the whole story like clutch third down catches, drawing attention away from Calvin, locker room leadership, downfield blocking and having a reliable pair of hands.  Burleson made plays when given the opportunity and he kept defenses honest.  That’s all the Lions were asking for when they signed him last spring.  Burleson has great speed, good hands and he knows the little tricks of the trade like how to push off without drawing a flag and how to pick a defender “accidentally.”  He doesn’t need to sharpen his route running at times, and like Calvin, will benefit from a more steady presence at quarterback.  2011 Outlook: Burleson will be back in the same role next season and he will hopefully benefit from and upgrade at the third receiver position.

Bryant Johnson:I had high hopes for Bryant Johnson but even after dropping down to the third receiver role he was out of his league.  Bryant Johnson has great size and good speed, but he’s never been able to put all the pieces together.  He had always been good for 35-45 catches as a number three receiver and I think the Lions were expecting that type of season from him, but not only did he catch a measly 18 passes but he also didn’t find the endzone for the first time in his career.  2011 Outlook:  Bryant Johnson has the kiss of death for an NFL player a high salary and low production.  He will most likely be cut, but there’s a small chance he may accept a pay cut to get a chance to redeem himself.

Derrick Williams: Williams was only active for seven games and with the acquisition of Stefan Logan he didn’t contribute in the return game.  For the year Williams recorded three catches for 30 yards bringing his two year total to nine catches for 82 yards.  Williams has decent size and good speed but he’s been slow to pickup the pro game.  Williams was a jack of all trades at Penn State playing running back, receiver, Wildcat quarterback and returning punts and kicks.  He’s had two seasons to study and learn how to run routes and read defenses but if he’s making progress in his development it hasn’t been rewarded with playing time.  2011 outlook: The basic rule of thumb is it takes two years for a college receiver to really grasp the pro game and if they are going to “get it” it happens in the third season.  Williams is entering his third season and many people have already given up and labelled him a bust.  I’m not ready to give up on him yet, but he’s going to have a lot to prove to make the roster in 2011.

Stefan Logan: Logan isn’t a true receiver but I’ll throw him in for this article.  Stefan Logan was one of Martin Mayhew’s best moves in his two and a half year tenure.  Logan was cut by the Steelers after training camp and signed with the Lions after final cutdowns.  He finished in the top five in punt and kick returns, contributed as a receiver and change of pace running back and even covered kicks.  Logan finished with 1905 total yards, ran a kick back 105 yards for a TD and he recovered two fumbles on special teams.  Logan was named the the first alternate at kick returner for the Pro Bowl as well.  Logan not only was a threat to break off long returns (he had five kick returns of over 40 yards and four punt returns over 40 yards), but he was consistent (41 of his 55 kick returns went for over 20 yards.)  All the more impressive is Logan is 5’6″ and weighs 180 lbs (per the Lions program, but I’m willing to bet he’s not a pound over 170.)  Logan gave the Lions a legitimate return threat again after lacking one for several years.  He’s got some big shoes to fill as the Lions have had their share of great returners in the past.  2011 Outlook: Logan will definitely be back as a return man and I think his versatility within the offense could lead to an expanded role.

Brian Clark: Clark is a career journeyman who primarily contributes on special teams.  He played four games for the Lions and didn’t record a catch.  2011 Outlook: I don’t see Clark making the team as a pure special teamer as they are looking to get more production out of their receiving corps.

Brandon Pettigrew: I will admit when the Lions drafted Pettigrew in 2009 I initially felt it was more of a luxury pick than they could afford.  I warmed up to the pick a little last year, but was concerned with how he’d bounce back from a torn ACL this year.  Pettigrew bounced back to the tune of 71 catches for 722 yards and 4 Tds.  Pettigrew established himself as one of the best all purpose tight ends in the league as he was already one of the best blocking tight ends.  He struggled with his concentration and had more drops than you’d like, but he made plenty of big catches and hung on to a lot of passes after some big hits too.  Pettigrew wasn’t known as a downfield threat or a big run after the catch guy, but he was lethal on tight end screens and proved to be very difficult to tackle in the open field.  He’ll never be Dallas Clark, but he is very capable of dominating the middle of the field if teams focus too much attention on the receivers.  Pettigrew needs to clean up the drops and he had a few too many penalties called against him (he also had a few too many illegitimate penalties called against him too.)  2011 Outlook: Pettigrew will be two years removed from surgery in the fall and he should finally be 100%.  He had nagging hamstring injuries his rookie year and then dealt with his recovery from the surgery in 2010.  2011 will be a big year for him as his role in the offense continues to grow. 

Tony Scheffler: Scheffler had a great first season in Detroit pulling in 45 catches for 378 yards and a touchdown while he got acclimated to a new offense and three quarterbacks.  Scheffler and Pettigrew formed a lethal combo leading the league in receptions by a tight end duo.  Scheffler’s production faded down the stretch after he caught 26 of his 45 passes in the first six games, but the Lions had a different starting quarterback four times in the final 10 games.  Scheffler is more of a downfield threat than Pettigrew but he didn’t get to take advantage of that this season with all the turnover.  Scheffler is a very good receiver, but he needs to improve his blocking as he was rarely asked to do so in Denver.  2011 Outlook: Scheffler signed an extension during the season, so he will be back in 2011.  I expect that he will also play a larger role in the offense if he improves his blocking.

Will Heller: Heller is a beast of a blocker and a much better receiver than he was originally expected to be.  Heller’s stats dropped from 2009 but so did his playing time after Scheffler was brought in.  Heller’s blocking was a big factor in the reuuning game’s resurgence late in the season and he also logged his only touchdown in the win over the Packers.  2011 Outlook:  Heller got more playing time as the Lions looked to improve the blocking from their second tight end, so if Scheffler doesn’t improve his blocking, he and Heller could split time.

2011 Offseason:  The Lions are going to return the same three tight ends in similar roles, but the receiving corps could be getting gutted.  Calvin Johnson and Burleson will obviously be back, but it could just be them.  The Lions will definitely look for a third receiver that can challenge defenses downfield.  Burleson is a legitimate deep threat out of a base formation, he frequently slides into the slot when the Lions go to multiple receiver formations.  Burleson is better suited for the slot, but defenses don’t worry as much about him going deep, so they still roll coverage towards Calvin Johnson.  The Lions need a burner to put on the outside to keep defenses honest in long yardage or obvious passing situations.  The Lions will also look for a developmental fourth receiver if they decide to move on from Derrick Williams.  If they carry a fifth receiver, he will have to be able to contribute as a receiver and special teamer not just one or the other.

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