With Johnson's likely retirement, search for new No. 1 WR begins
With the news that Calvin “Megatron” Johnson is likely hanging up his cleats, any Lions fans old enough will be getting flashbacks to Barry Sanders.
Detroit doesn’t get many all-time great talents pulling on the silver and blue, so to see two of them walk away when still at their peak must be tough to take. Johnson is potentially walking away at age 30, after nine successful seasons in the NFL. He is 43rd all-time in receptions, 27th in receiving yardage, and 22nd in receiving touchdowns. Only two active players have more touchdown receptions, and who knows how much time at the top he would have had if he continued.
Johnson is one of an increasing number of players whose entire career has been captured by the PFF era. His first three seasons in the league were not without struggles, but over the past six seasons, he has ranked in the top 10 every single year, and the top five in all but one of those seasons.
At his best, Megatron was an un-coverable force who changed the way teams defended him. Johnson occasionally drew gunner-style double-coverage from two cornerbacks down in the red zone. Instead of one guy with safety or bracket coverage help, defenses would line two defensive backs in press coverage on Johnson at the line and jam him like he was a stud gunner on the punt team.
This explains, in part, how Johnson could post 122 catches and 1,964 yards in 2012, but score only five touchdowns. At 6-foot-5-inches and 235 pounds, he was unlike any other receiver in the league, and an unfamiliar physical presence that cornerbacks were unable to contend with. At times during his career, Matthew Stafford has been able to force the ball to Johnson with the knowledge that he will fix a lot of bad decisions or bad ball locations. The Lions now have to move on without that safety blanket, and perhaps more importantly, without their best receiver.
Where will they go to fill that void? Alshon Jeffery is an impending free agent and a big-time receiver in his own right, but is the only clear No. 1 talent in a free agent crop that does not inspire at receiver. Jeffery missed time this season due to injury, but when he played he was a force. Jeffery earned the third overall WR grade in 2015 (94.2), trailing only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones—actually ahead of Megatron (89.4).
Jeffery has the ability to replace Johnson, but as the only free agent of substance at receiver, the market for him will likely be ferocious. The next best receivers in the free agent marketplace are Marvin Jones, Kamar Aiken, Rishard Matthews, and Travis Benjamin, and while all can do good things, none looks like a No. 1 receiver, forcing the Lions to make Golden Tate that guy, or share the load across the offense with no true No. 1. That is very doable in today’s NFL, but would be something the Lions have not had to deal with for the past several years.
The alternative is for the team to turn its attention towards the draft and push receiver to the top of the wish list. TCU’s John Doctson, Laquon Treadwell from Ole Miss, and Baylor’s Corey Coleman, in particular, all figure to be drafted high, with Doctson earning the best PFF College grade of the trio this past season. This draft is once again full of talented receivers, much like the past two drafts, but last year showed us that a rookie receiver coming in and making that type of impact is easier said than done.
Whatever happens, the Lions will be unlikely to enter the 2016 season without a hangover caused by missing Calvin Johnson. The void he leaves is simply too great not to have an impact. The team needs to work out what the best move is to replace his presence long-term. They will just be hoping it doesn’t take eight years until they see another talent as good—like it did the last time their best player walked away.