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TIM AND MIKE: Where will Calvin Johnson rank in the NFL's Top 100?

Posted Jul 9, 2014

Senior writer Tim Twentyman and columnist Mike O'Hara discuss Calvin Johnson's place in the NFL's Top 100 and expectations for Matthew Stafford heading into year six.

It is a typical point in the offseason, with player rankings and potential player discipline at the top of the “news” cycle – if it really qualifies as news in the strict sense.

The NFL Network’s Top 10 from its annual list of the Top 100 players is set to be unveiled, and speculation for Lions fans is where Calvin Johnson will be ranked. He has been No. 3 the last two years. Where should he rank, and should he hold his position or drop down?

Matthew Stafford was No. 100, which means he’ll likely wind up 14th overall among quarterbacks. Ten other quarterbacks already are ranked ahead of him, and Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees should be in the Top 10. Stafford got a lot of votes from fans saying he’s underrated. Is that accurate, and how much room does he have to improve in his sixth season?

And in Cleveland, talented but troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon is facing a possible one-year suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. There was talk last year about the Lions trading for Gordon. Did the Lions catch a break by not making a deal, or was it mostly idle speculation at the time?

As always, it’s an interesting time in the NFL, even with nothing happening on the field.

Mike: Starting with Calvin, he’s important to the Lions for all the right reasons: he’s the best receiver in football; he’s a role model on and off the field for the way he conducts himself; there are never any worries from the front office or coaching staff that they’ll get a call at 3 a.m. to bail him out of some jam.

Strictly for what he does on the field, it doesn’t matter where he is in the Top 10. If someone wants to put three quarterbacks ahead of him, so be it. Quarterback is the most important position in football.

Same for ranking a defensive player ahead of him.

But year in, year out, he is the best offensive player in the NFL who doesn’t play quarterback. He has proven that over time.

Tim: Adrian Peterson probably has an argument to be included among that discussion. He and Megatron are both treated the same way by defenses. Johnson continues to beat double and triple coverage week-in and week-out, while opponents still have little luck stopping Peterson with eight or nine guys in the box.

Great players find ways to make plays even when defenses do all they can to stop them. Johnson and Peterson have proven that they're two of the top weapons in the game because of it.

If both stay healthy, we could be talking about the greatest receiver and running back to play the game competing in the same era.

I would put Manning, Brady and Brees ahead of Johnson and Peterson in the rankings because of the position they play. You can’t win in this league without good quarterback play. Just can't do it.

As for Gordon and the situation in Cleveland, this is exactly why Lions GM Martin Mayhew didn’t want to give away any assets in a trade for him. He was facing a year ban the next time he got popped and most people thought it was just going to be a matter of time given his history of abuse.

The Lions saw the bigger picture and stayed away. No need for another distraction like Titus Young and Gordon is becoming one in Cleveland. It was a smart move, even though Cleveland wasn't going to let him go without serious compensation.

Mike: It seemed like a simple proposition at the trade deadline last year. The Browns kept making it known that they weren’t interested in trading Gordon, despite his problems. That closed the door on anyone making a deal, unless it could be pried open with something that didn’t make sense – like giving up two first-round draft picks.

The Lions had no way of knowing at the time last year that they’d have the 10th pick in this year’s draft. But even if it was No. 20, the price would have been too high.

The obvious question for the Browns is what they do going forward with Gordon. He is an immense talent and has produced since Cleveland took him with the first pick in the second round of the 2012 draft.

The knee-jerk reaction among a lot of people is for the Browns to get rid of him. I’d keep him. If Gordon gets a one-year suspension, he’ll be 24 when he comes back in 2015. He has too much talent, production and potential to be even better if he overcomes his problems for the Browns to give up on him so soon.

Meanwhile, the Lions filled that receiver slot in the offseason without giving up draft picks. They signed free-agent Golden Tate.

Tim: I wouldn’t cut him either, Mike, but he’d be on really thin ice. He let the front office, the locker room and the city of Cleveland down, plus he loses a season of football in his prime.

I’d hang onto him as long as he agreed to get some help. He’s one of the best receivers in the game and you don’t part with players like that unless they leave you no choice.

On the subject of Stafford, being the 13th or 14th ranked quarterback in the league is probably a little underrated, but appropriate. Hear me out:

He has the talent to be a Top 10 quarterback in this league. He has a great arm, he’s smart, he anticipates well and he’s got moxie.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: Detroit Lions)

His ranking is appropriate, however, because he hasn’t won anything yet. Stafford has said on many occasions that he can’t be considered among the Mannings, Bradys and Brees of the world until he makes the Lions a consistent winner.

Some might ask, 'What has Tony Romo or Philip Rivers won?'

They haven't won a Super Bowl, granted, but they've taken their franchises to multiple playoff appearances. Stafford has said the next step for this team is becoming a consistent playoff contender.

Stafford is underrated in terms of his potential, but appropriately placed because quarterbacks are judged on one thing and that’s winning. He hasn’t quite done enough of that yet, but hopefully he now has the coaches and the pieces around him to help him do more of it.

Mike: The rankings are what they are. The goal should be to develop to a point where rankings don’t matter, and performance speaks for itself.

There is no reason that Stafford cannot improve steadily at this point in his career. Drew Brees is a model for any quarterback to follow, not just Stafford. Peyton Manning often has been used as the yardstick to measure Stafford’s growth, but Brees is a much better one.

Brees was 27 and going into his sixth season when he signed with the Saints as a free agent after five seasons in San Diego. He had a change in coaches (from Marty Schotteinheimer and his staff to Sean Payton) and a new system to learn. Stafford is facing much the same situation in 2014.

Brees had decent stats in San Diego, – including 24 TD passes against 15 interceptions his last year with the Chargers – but his career took off in New Orleans. He led the NFL in passing yards in 2006, and his ratio of TD passes to interceptions improved to 26-11. Since that first season in San Diego, Brees has put up some of the best stats of any quarterback in history.

Stafford is 26 and a year younger than Brees was going into his sixth season. There’s no reason Stafford’s career should not be on an upward trend.

Tim: Nailed it.

Brees is a great example of a quarterback who got substantially better after year five of his career. It can be done. He found the right coaching staff, the right system and the team put the right players around him to fit his talents.

It’s really a great example of what the Lions are hoping happens with Stafford. He has three offensive-minded coaches – Jim Caldwell, Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter -- all with experience working with quarterbacks. He has passing threats at every level at receiver, running back and tight end.

Stafford is entering year six and the all the pieces seem to be in place. There’s no excuse why we shouldn’t see it all come together for him like it did in 2011, when he threw for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and completed nearly 64 percent of his passes.

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