Wide receiver Nate Burleson takes the ball up field with cornerback Jonathan Wade defending. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Nate Burleson is here to help, any way he can. If that means getting open so Calvin Johnson isn't dragging three defenders all over the field, that's what he plans to do.
If it means providing veteran leadership, no problem. If it means organizing weekly bowling outings to bond the receivers, sure. If it means being the voice of the famously low-key Johnson, hey, Burleson will stretch those vocal cords.
"I'll speak for him!" said Burleson, whose personality bounces off walls. "I'll be his buddy, his sidekick and his promoter. He has just about every tool you can have -- height, speed, strength, the ability to jump. He's the closest thing to Randy Moss, and in my eyes, Randy Moss is one of the biggest threats in NFL history."
In Johnson's three seasons with the Lions, that's primarily what he has been -- a threat. Dangerous and occasionally dominant, Johnson has been the quietest star in the NFL.
Every week began with the Lions trying to figure out how to get him the ball. Every season ended with the belief Johnson could do much more. As the team has switched quarterbacks and offensive coordinators and directions, Johnson has gotten lost at times. Frustrated, too.
For the Lions to truly change, that has to change, and Johnson's talent must be maximized. Now, Matthew Stafford and Johnson are going through their first camp together as starters, and the growing chemistry is apparent. The Lions have more experienced players on offense, which should lead to more continuity, more noise.
Burleson was an expensive addition, signed from the Seahawks for $25 million. GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz also traded for tight end Tony Scheffler, desperately placing a premium on getting a premium out of their chief investments, Johnson and Stafford.
Johnson likes what he sees and doesn't mind saying it. He just doesn't say it as vociferously as Burleson.
"Obviously, people are gonna talk about the one-two punch, but I want to be the best receiving corps in the NFL," Burleson said Monday. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant (Johnson) will make plays. You hear about T.O. (Terrell Owens) and Chad Johnson (Chad Ochocinco) in Cincinnati. I'm gonna say firsthand, we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done."
The Lions would appreciate anything positive being said and done. Since Calvin Johnson arrived as the No. 2 overall pick in 2007, he's had one tremendous year -- 1,331 receiving yards and 12 TDs in 2008 -- and a couple good, injury-hampered campaigns, including 984 yards last season.
Burleson isn't here because he's about to become a star. He's 28 and his best season was 2004 (1,006 yards). He's here because he knows routes and roles, and if defenses insist on making the 6-foot-5 Johnson miserable, Burleson hopefully can make them pay.
At least that's the plan. Burleson loves the plan, just as he did in Minnesota, as Moss' sidekick. Burleson welcomes it, cheerfully saying, "I've played Robin to someone else's Batman before."
With the Lions, there have been too many Jokers for too long. (Sorry.) Of all their issues, receiver has been particularly vexing, going to Matt Millen's infamous drafting strategy. A little stability would be nice, and Burleson is eager to provide it.
The receivers' bowling get-together Tuesday nights was one way to fit in. Another was the unusual step Burleson took shortly after arriving, when he stood up in a meeting room and addressed his fellow receivers.
"There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," Burleson said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm gonna play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back."
No, he'd much rather pat Johnson on the back, partly because Johnson has no intention of patting himself.
Ask him about the rest of the offense and Johnson doesn't mind expanding.
"We got some weapons, and Matt's real accurate right now," he said. "I'm sure we're gonna have to prove we can do stuff, and then we'll probably see a lot more straight coverage."
And yourself? Where do you think you rank among the top NFL receivers?
"Uh, you can't help but hear yourself mentioned with those guys, that's cool, but I don't get caught up in it," he said. "I definitely feel like I'm an elite receiver."
He smiled and turned away, and that's all he wanted to say on that topic. With the right help from Burleson and others, maybe nothing more will need to be said, when it's all said and done.
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