Nate Burleson to the Lions
The Lions’ search for a complementary receiver to alleviate some of the pressure from Calvin Johnson led them to wave $25 million ($11 million guaranteed) in front of Nate Burleson to woo him from Seattle. And while it may be easy to be gunshy after watching last year’s next big thing, Bryant Johnson, slog his way to a pedestrian 35-417-3, there are certainly reasons for guarded optimism.
Let’s start with the reunion between Burleson and Scott Linehan, Detroit’s offensive coordinator. Linehan held the same position with the Vikings in 2004, when Burleson put up career numbers of 68 catches, 1,006 yards, and nine touchdowns—opposite Randy Moss, who posted 49-767-13 in 13 games. Linehan obviously knows Burleson’s skill set, and knows that he can be counted on as the wingman to an elite receiver.
Burleson also still has some game left in him, as evidenced by a solid 63-812-3 in Seattle last season as second banana to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. While Housh isn’t nearly the overwhelming WR1 that Megatron is, he was the primary guy in a Seahawk receiving corps that also saw Deion Branch and tight end John Carlson put up good to very good numbers. So Burleson appears capable of carving out production in an ensemble class—certainly better than Johnson or Dennis Northcutt (35-357-1) did for the Lions last year.
The real keys to Burleson’s productivity will be the development of second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford and the development of a couple components of the supporting cast: tight end Brandon Pettigrew and rookie running back Jahvid Best.
If Stafford stays healthy for a full season and puts up numbers similar to what he averaged last season, he’s looking at about 3,400 yards and 20 touchdowns—not too far from what Joe Flacco posted his sophomore season. With improved targets—Burleson, Best, a healthy Pettigrew and a full slate of healthy games from Megatron—that yardage could easily push up towards the 3,800 mark, boosting everyone’s numbers across the board.
Lion tight ends accounted for 800 yards and five touchdowns last season, unsurprising numbers for a Linehan offense. Pettigrew accounted for just 346 and two before suffering a season-ending knee injury; if he comes back healthy he’ll claim a larger share of that 800 and five, but it’s unlikely the overall tight end share increases.
Best, on the other hand, could significantly spike the running backs’ portion of the Detroit passing game. Last year’s numbers—710 yards and two touchdowns from Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, and Aaron Brown—aren’t as impressive as the 22-213-4 Best recorded in his abbreviated nine-game final campaign at Cal. With little done to upgrade Stafford’s offensive line, dumpoffs to Best could quickly become Stafford’s security blanket.
But even if Best takes a bite of Stafford’s new and improved numbers and Megatron bounces back to something closer to his 1,331 and 12 from 2008, there’s still a spot for a wingman. A “reunited and it feels so good” return to Burleson’s 2004 numbers is overly optimistic, but a significant improvement on what the Lions received from Calvin Johnson’s underlings last year is almost a given. Ultimately, Burleson offers a viable option to Stafford if Megatron draws Randy Moss-type coverage, which should translate into serviceable fantasy numbers as well.