May 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

For Lions, keeping star Calvin Johnson healthy is wise

Calvin Johnson, Coach Lombardi Q&A
Calvin Johnson, Coach Lombardi Q&A: Wednesday post-OTA press conference

Allen Park — Two months into the NFL’s offseason work, and two months before training camp starts, Wednesday seemed like a good time to ask Calvin Johnson for a systems check on Megatron’s circuitry.

“Body’s feeling good, knee’s feeling good, hand’s feeling good,” he said, working his way from head to toe. “So I can’t complain.”

Not that he ever really does, of course. But among the myriad tasks for the new Lions coaching staff is this one, too: The longer they can keep Calvin Johnson feeling good, the better off they’ll all be.

And though most of the talk about the Lions offseason moves has focused on what it means for quarterback Matthew Stafford — he quickly grew weary of questions about footwork drills — maximizing Johnson’s potential is a big part of it, too.

He’s already the biggest — and best — target in the NFL, even as he enters his eighth season. But Johnson’s also a prime target for opposing defenses. And when the All-Pro receiver is surrounded by the supporting cast he had for much of the last two seasons in Detroit, he’s a much easier target to hit — for opponents.

Which is part of the reason I was asking him about last year’s pain and suffering.

Johnson limped through the final three months of 2013 on a damaged right knee. (“It was bad enough where I had to get it drained every week,” he said.) And he played the entire season with a mangled left ring finger that was, as he politely described it, “stuck at 90 degrees.” (Ex-teammate Nate Burleson described the post-surgical photos Johnson texted him as “literally the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”)

“He would never complain about that, but certainly that was a factor, I think, in the way that he played,” general manager Martin Mayhew said this offseason..

The finger might’ve had something to do with a few uncharacteristic drops. But it was the knee that affected him the most. He’d have it drained on Monday after games to reduce the swelling and discomfort, rest it for 48 hours for precautionary reasons, then rejoin his teammates for a day or two of practice most weeks. His conditioning suffered, he admits, and so did his timing, which makes some of Johnson’s performances all the more impressive — the record-setting 329-yard day against Dallas in October, or the dominant first half at Pittsburgh in November.

“You know the plays, but I feel that you have to go out there and practice to be able to play at your best,” Johnson said. “I’m a firm believer in that.”

With the Lions eliminated from playoff contention, Johnson finally sat out in Week 17. Then he underwent surgeries to clean out the knee and repair the finger in early January.

“So it’s good to have those things freed up right now,” Johnson said.

Much needed help

As for freeing up No. 81, that’s been a familiar refrain for some time now in Detroit.

The high point probably came in 2011, when fellow receivers Burleson and Titus Young combined for 121 catches and nine touchdowns, tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler added 109 catches and 11 touchdowns, and Jahvid Best helped key a fast start as an dual-threat running back. Not surprisingly, Johnson led the league in receiving as the Lions ended their playoff drought,

He did it again in 2012, shattering Jerry Rice’s NFL season record with 1,964 receiving yards. But, Johnson wasn’t just the primary target. He was practically the only one, racking up 122 catches on a whopping 205 targets for a team that lost its final eight games. The next highest reception total among the Lions wideouts belonged to Young, the troubled talent who caught 33 balls before being deactivated for the final month of the season.

Last year, it was much the same as Burleson, who missed half the season with a broken arm, finished second among the wide receivers with 39 catches. The addition of Reggie Bush in a backfield tandem with Joique Bell helped diversify the attack somewhat, but Stafford again was forced to lean too heavily on his No. 1 receiver because of limited secondary options. (According to Pro Football Focus, Kris Durham’s 46.3 percent “catch rate” ranked among the league’s worst.)

That’s why the Lions went out and paid big money for Golden Tate in free agency. It’s also why they spent a top-10 draft pick on a pass-catching tight end in Eric Ebron.

“And that’s where we can help Calvin out,” said Bush, citing those two offseason additions in particular. “We need to be able to spread the ball around so that one guy is not getting too beat up.”

Offense looks good

Spreading the wealth is hardly a novel concept. But it’s one that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has seen work to near-perfection, at times, coaching the past several years in New Orleans. The Saints had four players with 70-plus catches last season, and seven with 30 or more in years before that, including their 2009 Super Bowl run.

And while Lombardi joked Wednesday about being awestruck by Johnson’s ability — “You’ve got to be careful not to be a fan when you’re watching him because it’s really unbelievable when you see him in person,” he said — the idea is to take advantage of defenses when they do fixate on him.

So far, Johnson says he likes what he sees from Lombardi’s hefty playbook and an up-tempo scheme that should resemble the Saints’ offense, at least in theory.

“I love it because we can run one play out of so many different looks,” Johnson said. “And that goes for every play that we have. It’s so much variety.”

“It’s not the same as last year, by any means.”

And for the moment, that feels pretty good.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson pulls in a reception during drills Wednesday at the Lions training facility in Allen Park. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
More John Niyo