July 29, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Lions start Calvin Johnson slow in training camp, aiming to keep him healthy


Allen Park — During a receiving drill, Calvin Johnson burst off the line and after a few strides, made a cut — and the pass from Matthew Stafford was there.

But there weren’t any defenders around Johnson in the drill Tuesday, the second day of training camp. It was a shell drill with just the offensive skill players. Throughout his time with the Lions, Johnson has been a practice warrior, playing with the same intensity and speed he would in a Sunday afternoon game in November.

Entering his eighth season, Johnson is starting to cool his jets a little, saving some energy for the wear-and-tear of the regular season — at the behest of first-year coach Jim Caldwell.

“I’m older now and I’m not diving for the balls anymore,” said Johnson, 28. “Coach Caldwell puts a big emphasis on us staying off the ground. I don’t see a lot of the reps I’m used to seeing. They’ll come, but I’m used to being out there every play of the game. They’re putting me in and I’m not playing every play in practice, but they’re working me in.”

Johnson, who caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games last season, will be a more versatile weapon this season, spreading across the field in different formations.

“The coaches told me to be ready to be ready to play every position, so I’m trying to learn everything,” Johnson said. “It’s a learning curve and you’re in the huddle and have to think about it a second longer than you want to.”

Johnson is accustomed to playing out wide and sometimes in the slot, but his new assignments have him in an odd position — tight near the offensive line, which he said was the most difficult.

But under Caldwell, the thought is to conserve Johnson a little, putting a premium on keeping him healthy and preventing him from missing games, like the two games (both losses) he missed last season.

“This is a difficult game to go out there with the intent of just keeping somebody healthy — it doesn’t happen very often,” Caldwell said. “Obviously, we monitor everything, not just Calvin, but every single guy, in terms of workload and how much they’re working and try to be smart about it.”

The Lions ranked third in passing offense last season, but added weapons to keep defenses from double- and triple-covering Johnson. The addition of free-agent receiver Golden Tate and first-round pick Eric Ebron put even more emphasis on the offense, while fewer moves were made on defense.

“We have to produce and we’re going to produce,” Johnson said. “As long as we stay healthy and whenever everybody’s on the field, we produce. We have to limit our turnovers and mistakes. We have some great players on defense this year and the secondary is improved greatly.”

Tate, who won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks last season, could step into the role vacated by Nate Burleson.

“Golden is a very savvy route runner,” Johnson said. “Coming off that shoulder injury he had, he’s looking really good out there for missing the time he did in OTAs. It’s very good to see him in stride with us out there in the offense.”

But Ebron — who can line up at tight end, receiver or in the backfield — provides the biggest ray of hope Johnson won’t have another heavy workload. Ebron has tried to get some tips from Johnson on how to handle certain situations and to improve his game.

“He’s always very comfortable with it and moves extremely well for a tight end, like a receiver out there — that’s why you see him split out sometimes,” Johnson said. “Whenever something comes up, like how do you place your hands or if he drops a ball, he might say something to me.”

With more weapons at quarterback Matthew Stafford’s disposal, the offense will be the focal point.

But Johnson isn’t looking to get back to the eye-popping stats from 2012 — 122 catches and 1,964 yards — in order to get wins.

Some of that work will be spread to the other options, which is just fine with Johnson.

“Golden is going to get a lot of one-on-one coverages and with all the weapons we have, those one-on-ones go full circle and I might get a couple myself,” he said.

“When he gets his game going, they can’t cover both of us, so one of us is going to have that opportunity.”


Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is saving himself for the wear and tear of the regular season. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News