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Mort & Schefter: Calvin Johnson could be elsewhere in 2016

Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports

In this week's "Six Points," Mort and Adam discuss Megatron's future, the Cardinals' QB coup, the future at quarterback in Philadelphia, Carolina's path in the NFC, Detroit's draft woes, and more.

Detroit's tough call on Calvin

As the Detroit Lions have dismantled their front office and part of their coaching staff, there is a natural inclination to wonder whether the purge will extend into 2016 with marquee players such as quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. After all, Stafford and Johnson will consume $46.5 million of the team's salary cap in 2016.

Johnson seems more likely to be on the chopping block. He will be 31 next season and even though some of his injuries fall under the "nagging" category, they appear to have diminished the greatness that earned him the Megatron moniker. He's human, after all.

Here's how it breaks down: Johnson is due $15.95 million in base salary in 2016. It's not an outrageous number in light of trending contracts for premium receivers, but the salary cap number based on prior bonuses is about $24 million. By dumping him, Johnson would count only $8 million on the Lions' salary cap. Maybe they could go sign Bears pending free agent Alshon Jeffery at a more friendly deal.

The speculation on Stafford is almost laughable, except nobody really knows who will be calling the shots for the Lions when they restructure their organization. In a small sample survey of seven NFL coaches and personnel men, they were unanimous that the Lions would be foolish to part with Stafford. He's too talented, his toughness is not in question, he works at the high level necessary for an NFL starting quarterback and, people who have coached and played with Stafford reject any idea his football acumen is lacking.

Stafford is only 27. Yes, he could attract a nice bounty of draft picks in a trade but there's no obvious upgrade in free agency or the draft. In discussing Stafford and the idea he could be expendable, former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi cautioned: "You don't get rid of quarterbacks when you get one who has signs of greatness. You fix the defense so he's not playing from behind all the time and you protect him with your offensive line."

One could justify that the Lions should retain both Stafford and Johnson. Even with both players on the books, the Lions are projected to have at least $23.38 million available in salary cap space in 2016. The projected free-agent market is modest. But they botched their salary cap management though restructured contracts with their best players, which led to the exodus of Suh. The idea in the NFL is to keep your great players, especially in their prime, not let them walk out the door.

Yet it is completely fair to question whether Calvin Johnson remains in his prime. -- CM

Carson could be in Arizona a while

When Arizona traded a seventh-round pick and swapped places in the sixth and seventh rounds with Oakland in exchange for quarterback Carson Palmer, many thought the Cardinals were uncovering a stop-gap measure, a bridge until they could find their quarterback of the future.

Instead, Palmer has been both. He has been a stop-gap measure and their quarterback of the future. Palmer has been so good that, as Arizona begins its second-half playoff push with a Sunday night game at Seattle, it now firmly believes that he can be this team's quarterback for years to come.

There are reasons for this. While many would not expect it, Palmer is not much older than his quarterback contemporaries, the Giants' Eli Manning and the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Palmer turns 36 next month while Manning turns 35 on New Year's Day and Rivers turns 34 next month. Not much difference there.

Keep in mind, the Giants recently rewarded Manning with a four-year, $84 million extension shortly after the Chargers gave Rivers a four-year, $83.25 million extension. So if Manning's and Rivers' teams believe their quarterbacks can survive and thrive for five more seasons, why couldn't Palmer do the same?

The Cardinals believe he can. Privately they have spoken about it. They want him back next season, and the season after, and the season after, and they think Palmer -- who tore his ACL one year ago Monday, and has made a full and complete recovery -- is more than capable. They have seen no drop off in the play of a quarterback whose 92.8 Total QBR on third downs this season is his best total in the past 10 years.

When Arizona traded one seventh-round pick and swapped late-round positions in another draft, it could not have expected to receive the quality and quantity of play Palmer has provided. But it might just be beginning. -- AS

Don't dismiss Philly as a Kaepernick fit

One of the sticking points in contract negotiations between Sam Bradford and the Philadelphia Eagles was that while Bradford was willing to provide some salary relief in 2015, any future years would still be at premium starting quarterback dollars if he stayed healthy.

Bradford is coming off his best game against the Dallas Cowboys, but unless he delivers a higher level of consistent play that results in playoff wins, it's difficult to see the Eagles paying him the kind of money it may take to get him signed to a contract extension. There is still a half-season remaining to prove he can stay healthy, too. He is set to become a free agent in 2016.

Enter Colin Kaepernick. This is not new speculation. Kaepernick has been benched with the 49ers and it is well-documented that the team can escape that six-year, $114 million contract signed a couple of years ago.

Whether or not the 49ers decide to move on remains to be seen, but one skill Kaepernick has that Chip Kelly has not employed yet in Philadelphia is a quarterback with the type of athleticism to truly be a threat in the read option. What Kaepernick doesn't have is the type of accuracy that Kelly values in a passer. But as two general managers pointed out, Kelly has a track record going back to Oregon, and now with the Eagles, of winning with all types, some not nearly as skilled as Kaepernick. These GMs also agree with the notion that Kelly's offense would be even more threatening with a quarterback who is truly a dual threat. -- CM

Mike Mularkey finally has a QB

When Mike Mularkey won his first game as the interim coach of the Tennessee Titans last Sunday in New Orleans, people may have seen a surprising level of emotion. He was choked up and you could see the tears. Perhaps his past experiences as a head coach came rushing back to him, a 2-14 season in Jacksonville where QB play was a huge problem.

Tom Donahoe, the former Buffalo Bills general manager who gave Mularkey his first shot at head coach in 2004, has a special fondness and respect for the coach who just replaced the fired Ken Whisenhunt. Mularkey was 9-7 in his first season with the Bills before falling to 5-11 in 2005. He actually resigned from that job when Donahoe was fired as the GM.

"After they told me to leave, Mike didn't like the structure of the front office and there were a few other elements in play that affected him and his family," said Donahoe. "The reality is Mike was not a failure. He had two impossible situations as a head coach. I mean, go look at the roster he had in Jacksonville. His quarterback to start the year was Blaine Gabbert and it seemed like half the team ended up on injured reserve (21 players did.)

"The way things work in the NFL, he probably doesn't have a great chance to keep the job with the Titans but he finally has a quarterback in Marcus Mariota -- something he's never had."

When it was pointed out that Donahoe was responsible for giving Mularkey a quarterback like J.P. Losman in the 2004 draft, the former GM was not insulted.

"Look, we tried like crazy to jump in front of the Steelers at that 11th spot and we thought we had a deal with Dallas to get [Ben] Roethlisberger and it fell through," said Donahoe. "And we were under orders from the owner (the late Ralph Wilson Jr.) to draft a quarterback. When we didn't get Roethlisberger we had to trade back into the first round to get Losman. And I think J.P. may have had a different career if certain things hadn't happened. But the bottom line is if you give Mike Mularkey a great young quarterback, he will have success. Mike [is] very good with protections. He's a man of integrity, he's open to criticism, he's organized, he's easy to work with and he's going to hold players accountable. He may not shout about it, but just watch him."

Mularkey did show that early in his interim tenure. He stripped tackle Taylor Lewan of his status as a captain and gave it to Dexter McCluster. -- CM

NFC is the Panthers' to lose

There seems to have been some sort of magic going on this season in Carolina and even if anyone wants to dispute that, there already should be talk of magic numbers.

At 8-0, Carolina is running away not just with the NFC South title but home-field advantage in the NFC as well. To the dismay of Arizona, Green Bay and Minnesota, the NFC's road to the Super Bowl now goes right through Carolina.

It's hard to imagine anyone in the NFC catching Carolina and overtaking the Panthers for postseason positioning.

Carolina's remaining eight opponents, beginning Sunday at Tennessee, have a combined record of 31-35. The Panthers' remaining road games are at Tennessee, at Dallas, at New Orleans, at N.Y. Giants and at Atlanta. It's possible, and probably even likely, that the Panthers will not be underdogs in any of those matchups.

Through the first half of the season, this has looked like Carolina's year. The Panthers are 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. They have won 12 straight regular-season games dating back to last season, the longest active win streak in the NFL, longer even than the mighty New England Patriots.

Cam Newton has demonstrated a maturity and command at the line of scrimmage that wasn't always so evident. One NFL executive last week praised Newton's command at the line of scrimmage, saying the Panthers' quarterback has "mastered the ability to check in and out of plays." The fact that he has shown how much he has grown and matured, not unlike this Panthers' team itself.

If there's an area of concern, it's that Carolina hasn't closed well. Two weeks ago, it nearly surrendered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead before holding on to narrowly beat the Colts, 29-26. Then this past Sunday, Carolina nearly blew a 23-point fourth-quarter lead before holding on to put away the Packers, 37-29.

In two straight weeks against tough opponents, Carolina struggled to close. But now it has eight games left to close out a division title and home-field advantage it should not lose. Carolina has positioned itself to be home for the holidays, and beyond. -- AS

Lions' troubles in Round 2

There were assorted reasons Lions owner Martha Ford decided to fire team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew last week. But one that stood out was the Lions' second-round draft record -- especially as to how it compares to their NFC rival, the Packers, whom Detroit plays Sunday.

In 2010, Detroit packaged its second-round pick to climb up to the back part of the first round to draft running back Jahvid Best; the Packers picked defensive lineman Mike Neal.

In 2011, Detroit used its second-round pick on wide receiver Titus Young, whom the Lions drafted 20 draft slots higher than Randall Cobb.

In 2012, Detroit invested its second-round pick on wide receiver Ryan Broyles; three picks earlier, the Packers picked Jerel Worthy.

In 2013, Detroit's second-round pick was Darius Slay; 27 picks later, the Packers picked running back Eddie Lacy.

In 2014, Detroit drafted linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round; 13 picks later, the Packers grabbed wide receiver Davante Adams.

And this past year, the Lions used their second-round pick on running back Ameer Abdullah while the Packers used theirs on defensive back Quinten Rollins. It's a second-round record good -- or bad enough -- to get men fired, which is now what has happened.

Yet Detroit has had certain moments of glory, some even against Green Bay. After the Lions beat the Packers 19-7 in Week 3 of last season -- which now seems like an awfully long time ago -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers appeared on local Green Bay radio and uttered the memorable letters, "R-E-L-A-X ..."

But now's a tough time for both to R-E-L-A-X. The Lions have botched their second-round picks and have begun revamping their organization, and the Packers have lost their past two games, the first time Rodgers has lost consecutive starts in a single season since Week 5-6 in 2010.

After Sunday, one team will be a little more relaxed than the other. -- AS