Can the Lions replace a departed superstar in Calvin Johnson?

With the potential Hall-of-Famer calling it a career, the Lions signed the top wideout on the market. John Breitenbach checks how effective that will be.

| 6 months ago
(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Can the Lions replace a departed superstar in Calvin Johnson?

Sometimes, when a team loses a player, it’s for the best. Sometimes, it’s a tough loss, but the hole is easily filled.

And then there’s the gaping chasm left by Calvin Johnson.

The Detroit Lions’ offense suffered from a myriad of issues en route to seven wins in 2015. Coordinator Joe Lombardi and the offensive line coaches were fired after quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked six times by the Vikings in Week 7, a 28-19 loss that brought the team to 1-6, with the team losing its next game, in London, as well. Such a poor start gave way to a strong 6-2 finish after the bye, but it was too little, far too late.

The optimism surrounding the Lions’ strong finish was tempered, however, by Johnson, the superstar wide receiver, announcing his retirement in the offseason. The WR ended his career after nine seasons and 135 games, amassing 11,619 receiving yards and 83 touchdowns, likely reserving himself a place in Canton. He was far from washed up when he decided to call it a career, ranking as PFF’s ninth overall receiver in 2015, and ranking 57th in the PFF Top 101 for the season. For the Lions, replacing his 2015 production of 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns will not be easy.

Detroit dipped into the free-agent market to replace Megatron, signing ex-Cincinnati Bengal Marvin Jones to a five-year, $40 million dollar contract with $20 million guaranteed. Jones showed a variety of skills in his time in Cincinnati, though his downfield capabilities were held somewhat in check by the presence of A.J. Green in the Bengals’ offense. At first look, it might appear that Jones could be a deep threat with Detroit, but the offense put in place by new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter seems to be more geared toward a horizontal passing attack, and Jones worked fine as an intermediate threat in Cincinnati as well. He can help wide receiver Golden Tate and pass-catching running back Theo Riddick spread the field laterally.

The team also has tight end Eric Ebron, who has underwhelmed in his two seasons since being the 10th-overall pick in the 2014 draft, two spots ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. Ebron was better in his second season than his first, but through two years, he has only 785 yards and six touchdowns. He’ll be a red-zone target and there’s still a chance at more development, but for now, he might figure as a primary weapon in the overall offense.

As for Jones, he also thrives in space; only 12 receivers broke more tackles per reception than the former Bengals wideout. He made defenders miss just over once every five catches in 2015, as well as averaging 4.6 YAC. Teammate Golden Tate was even more elusive, breaking 30 tackles on his 90 passes. The Lions made a concerted effort to improve their efficiency moving the chains in the latter part of 2015. Tate’s dynamism from the slot is matched by Riddick’s shiftiness in the open field. Riddick led all backs with 36 broken tackles last year, making a defender miss 36 times in his 80 catches.

In some ways, the move to a less vertical offense meant the Lions were already transitioning to an offense less suited to Johnson’s skill-set. That said, losing a player of his quality is always going to be a hurdle. He might not have produced as consistently as seasons past, but he still terrorized the NFC North, catching five of his nine touchdowns inside the division. Johnson also served up a primetime feast on Thanksgiving; another three scores were registered in front of the holiday’s national audience, as Johnson dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary.

As well as adjusting away from a vertical passing game under Cooter, Detroit will hope an infusion of youth on their offensive line conduces some improvement from Stafford. Three of the team’s first five picks in the draft were spent on offensive lineman. First-round pick Taylor Decker, an offensive tackle out of Ohio State, is a mauler predominantly, but Washington State’s Joe Dahl, taken in the fifth round, led the PFF tackle rankings in pass-protection grades. He’ll ensure competition behind a pair of high-potential players in Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson. Graham Glasgow, a center out of Michigan, was the team’s third-round selection, and will have a shot to battle for the starting position currently held by the thus-far underwhelming Travis Swanson.

The Lions had to fork out some fairly significant resources to sign Jones, but he was the best wideout on the free-agent market and their best chance to replace a lost legend in Johnson. The team now has a top trio of pass catchers that will at least pose a threat in 2016 and a tight end with some room to develop. Depth is a potential problem, though, and there’s a chance playmaking diversity could become an issue. Ultimately, though, the key to success for the team’s passing game and offense as a whole is to get Stafford playing better and staying upright. Doing so will give the team the best chance to succeed without their departed superstar.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Mike

    Was hoping for the answer to the question, “CAN THE LIONS REPLACE A DEPARTED SUPERSTAR IN CALVIN JOHNSON?” when I opened this story.

    • ToreBear

      On the field yes. Off the field I’m sure he’ll be missed. On the field, his numbers should be replaced. His effect on coverages and such is an unknown. He did not draw as much attention this year as he has previously though.

  • ToreBear

    The focus on horisontal passing was likely more about dealing with the Oline problems than scheme. Stafford never had the time to allow vertical routes to develop.

  • crosseyedlemon

    This is a trick question. The Lions have rarely been pro-active so the answer is yes…but it probably won’t happen for a decade. I think they’re still looking for a replacement for Alex Karras.

  • Shaun Kawika O’neal

    I hate nitpicking about flow, and typos in an NFL article, but damn is one re-read to much to ask? Also, I think they will replace him just fine and it will make reading defenses a lot easier for Stafford and the oline. Defenses for the past 5 seasons have come up with some really exotic stuff to take CJ out of the game. I expect Stafford to have his best year as a pro.