In 2011, he hauled in 16 touchdowns to go along with 1,681 yards, setting the pace for a routine average draft position (ADP) in the mid-to-late first round of most fantasy leagues. And while it's not fair to say that he "regressed" in 2013, he was outplayed statistically by both Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas partly due to the poor play of his own quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
One must acknowledge that a selection of Thomas over Johnson in a fantasy draft is as much about a comparison between the two players' respective quarterbacks and a vote for Peyton Manning over Stafford.
Let's start there.
The main reason I would take (and rank) Thomas ahead of Johnson is based on my faith (or lack thereof) in Stafford's ability to get Johnson the ball. Among Stafford's issues in 2013 was that he had a hard time staying on the field, throwing 19 interceptions and routinely failing to put his team in a position to score despite a pass-heavy offense.
Under head coach Jim Caldwell, the Detroit Lions are less likely to emphasize the pass. This will be a change of pace in Detroit. While playing for head coach Jim Schwartz, Stafford threw the ball more than any other QB in history had in a three-season span (2011-2013).
Caldwell's offense means less passing situations for Stafford and Johnson.
You've got to assume two things if you want to believe that Stafford or Johnson will improve on last year's numbers.
First, you must assume that Detroit is going to make a quality-for-quantity trade in terms of their passing game; that Stafford will throw less but see better production as a result. That's possible, but is there any real reason to assume that will happen? Less production should mean less yards and touchdowns and perhaps a decrease in interceptions.
Wouldn't Reggie Bush and Joique Bell be the primary beneficiaries of such a change?
Second, one must assume that Stafford's mistakes and the overall tendency of the Lions' offense to turn the ball over will be reduced under Caldwell.
Again, this is possible. Yet outside of hopeful speculation, there's little reason to assume it will materialize on the field.
On the other hand, there's no arguing against the potential of Manning's offense right now outside of the assumption that he'll regress from a record-setting offensive season.
Yet even a moderate regression from his QB is something Thomas can afford.
If Manning doesn't eclipse 5,000 yards and reach 50 touchdowns, there are still going to be a lot of points on the board in Denver. With Thomas being the primary target on the Denver Broncos' roster, he's likely to have a hand in a significant percentage of those points.
Considering that Eric Decker signed with the New York Jets and Wes Welker, though still playing, is a significant concussion risk, Thomas is ripe to repeat and possibly even build on last year's performance, one in which he was a single point shy of the league lead in fantasy production among WRs.
Manning is simply more likely to do a better job of getting his top receiver the ball and not creating turnovers.
A Team-Based Assessment
In Johnson's defense, there aren't a lot of other palatable receivers for Stafford to throw to. Saying Golden Tate will take away opportunities from Johnson doesn't make sense, especially when you compare Tate to the weapons around Manning.
If Tate hurts Johnson's fantasy value, than Thomas has more to worry about in Denver.
But that depends on how you assess a receiver's value based on the team around him. Having the extra weapons might actually be a better situation for No. 1 wideout to be in.
Consider that Johnson is the receiver in Detroit, with a fairly mediocre team around him. Might that mean opposing defenses will have an easier time shutting him down, perhaps an easier time than if they had to also deal with Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders?
This is something you need to consider when you're thinking about drafting a wide receiver so high.
You've got to assess the team around him as much as you're looking at the name on the back of a jersey.
It's similar to what people mean when they tell you that when you get married, you marry the entire family.
And make no mistake, Calvin Johnson is a catch. He might even do the dishes. But you've got to be ready to make nice with the in-laws.
If that matters to you, go with Thomas and claim your stock in Denver's offense.
They're one big happy family.