With Johnson’s likely retirement, search for new No. 1 WR begins

With Calvin Johnson unlikely to return to the Detroit lineup next season, how can the Lions fill the No. 1 receiver role?

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • McGeorge

    If Calvin Johnson retires, he has to pay back > 3MM in bonus money. So instead he can “wait it out” and the Lions will be forced to cut him, or pay him his 2-16 salary (16MM), in which case he’ll count 24MM against the cap.

    If they cut him pre June 1, there goes 13MM in dead cap that hits the books. So they may have difficulty signing another big free agent.

    • anon76returns

      Doesn’t sound like Megatron’s hurting for money, or bears any sort of ill will towards the franchise. Doubt he’d do anything to cripple the organization- sounds like he’ll just take the 10s of millions he’s already gotten and go away happy.

      • Jason Saidoo

        He has made an estimated $107 million during his time with the Lions

        • crosseyedlemon

          Probably the best money the Lions have spent in the past decade.

      • Kevin Potts

        His retiring is hurting the franchise. If he holds no ill will towards the team, he’s not showing it. His retirement is absolutely worst case scenario for the Lions. They will still have a $12M cap hit with nothing to show for it. If he stayed just one more season it would make a major difference in cap hit. Even trading him this off-season would be better for the team.

        • crosseyedlemon

          You can hardly blame Johnson for the Lions not being proactive. The franchise has had plenty of time to groom a potential replacement. Detroit got full value from Calvin during his stellar career so they should simply say “thanks big guy” and allow him to leave the game on his own terms.

          • Kevin Potts

            There has been no reason to believe he would up and retire at this point in his career. NFL teams don’t “groom” potential replacements for WRs like they try to do with QBs. You couldn’t expect any team to be prepared for this scenario. The Lions will absolutely allow him to leave and show him nothing but respect. That doesn’t change the fact that they are getting screwed by him. CJ has always been a class act, best WR in football, but this sucks for fans and the Lions. I appreciate all he’s done and wish him the best, but that’s not going to change how I feel about his potential decision to leave now, rather than next year.

          • bobrulz

            But if his desire to play the game really has diminished, then he should retire today instead of putting in half-effort next season and receiving additional criticism. It doesn’t matter what you think.

          • Kevin Potts

            “it doesn’t matter what I think”. Wow, congratulations! You found the magical end all phrase. We can close down the internet now, cause it truly doesn’t matter what any of us thinks. No sense in having anymore discussions about anything. Ha! That said, to respond to YOUR thoughts that don’t matter, Calvin Johnson would not play with anything less than full effort. It’s ridiculous to suggest he would. No doubt he has given enough to the Lions, but that doesn’t mean we fans can’t be upset he’s leaving. And that the Lions are in a tough place without him. It sucks we’re allowed to vent.

          • bobrulz

            I may state the obvious, but at least I’m not an entitled, pompous douche.

            Yes it sucks for the fans that Calvin Johnson is retiring, but I choose to be happy for him and hope that he finds peace in his decision. Honestly, even as a fan of the game, I wouldn’t mind seeing more players retire early, so that they can have longer and healthier lives post-football.

  • JudoPrince

    During Calvin’s tenure, the Lions struggled mightily to compete despite having one of the best WR of all time. So why would you invest heavily on another potentially great WR when you know it won’t make the difference in your franchise competing for a tittle?

  • A tech god

    Where will they go to fill that void? Forcing?
    Is PFF really going to ignore that Golden Tate had like 100 receptions 1300 yards in 2014 with one of the best yards after catch?