When Johnson's former teammate Roy Williams dubbed him “Megatron” back in 2009, it seemed a fitting comparison given Johnson's unearthly physical gifts.
Johnson has a combination of size, speed and athleticism that no other player in football can match. At 6’5” and 236 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. Unfortunately for the NFL’s defensive backs, that imposing figure also runs like a gazelle and can out-jump just about any player in the league. Just as dominant in the open field as he is in the confines of the red zone, Johnson is an indefensible weapon.
Right from the start, defensive coordinators have been wise to Johnson’s ability. They've responded by running double teams at Johnson in nearly every passing situation. Many offenses could make opponents pay for this sort of single-minded strategy, but during Calvin Johnson’s young career, the Lions haven’t had the complementary threats necessary to counter an over-committed defense.
On top of that, the Lions have lacked a consistent triggerman to facilitate the deconstruction of those overloaded coverages. During Johnson’s tenure in Detroit, he’s caught passes from seven different quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna and J.T. O’Sullivan. Beyond Stafford—whose promising career has been knocked off course by major injuries in each of his first two seasons—Johnson has never worked with anything close to an elite QB.
Even in the face of a tidal wave of unfriendly circumstances, Johnson’s average single-season production during his four-year career represents an impressive statistical feat:
Impressive, yet still not a full realization of his seemingly infinite potential.
Going into 2011, it looks like Calvin Johnson will finally line up alongside a truly talented (and healthy) distributor.
Matthew Stafford has been outstanding in the preseason and looks primed to live up to expectations that accompanied his No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. Though he’s missed time during each of the last two years, there’s no reason to believe that Stafford can’t stay on the field for all 16 games this season.
Aside from Stafford’s impending return, the only significant new arrival to the Detroit passing game is rookie WR Titus Young. Young may be small, be he is certainly significant.
While some doubt that Young’s production at Boise State will translate fully to the NFL, his athleticism will play at any level. His addition gives the Lions a duo of receivers with legitimate big-play ability.
Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson are not new arrivals in Detroit, but all can expect to improve their performances from a season ago. In Best’s case, he may actually get a chance to take the field at full strength, something a nagging toe injury prevented in 2010. For Pettigrew, every minute he spends on the field aids in his development from raw athlete to reliable pass-catcher. Burleson has finally had the opportunity to work consistently with his young quarterback, with whom he’s developed quite a nice rapport.
Finally, let’s not forget that Calvin Johnson is only 25 years old. It seems ludicrous even as I type it, but he’s still improving as a football player. He’s getting better physically while simultaneously developing a mastery of Scott Linehan’s offense, as well as the defensive schemes employed against it.
With all of these factors working in his favor, it’s only logical to expect a boost in Johnson’s production this season. Knowing that a few missed games have dragged down his averages, a 50 percent increase is certainly not out of the question, with maybe a couple of extra touchdowns thrown in for good measure.
That would leave Megatron with the following stat line for 2011:
No NFL receiver has equaled those numbers since Randy Moss went 111/1,632/17 back in 2003.
With Moss likely spending his Sundays occupying a fishing boat somewhere in West Virginia, there’s no receiver left with a real chance to match that level of production.
Andre Johnson is not getting any better. He’s an outstanding player for sure, but his situation is already ideal. He’s supported by a Pro Bowl quarterback and an All-Pro runner. At 30 years old, the elder Johnson has peaked.
Larry Fitzgerald finally has a decent quarterback again, but he remains the only real offensive threat on his team. Defenses will continue to focus solely on Fitzgerald, making it unlikely for him to make any significant strides in 2011.
Roddy White is the top receiver on a loaded offense led by a star quarterback. With Julio Jones coming in to add yet another weapon to the Falcons’ already well-stocked roster, it seems that White may be primed for a career year. However, the key to his success over the past few years has been his status as Matt Ryan’s unrivaled favorite receiver. White led the NFL with 179 targets in 2010—42 more than Calvin Johnson. While the addition of complementary offensive pieces in Detroit will be a boon to Johnson’s production, Jones’ arrival in Atlanta is likely to cut in to White’s opportunities.
Statistics can never be a complete measure of a player, especially in a team sport like football, but they are absolutely a valuable piece of the puzzle. Based on talent alone, Calvin Johnson has already proven that he belongs in “best receiver in football” conversation. This season, Megatron will separate himself from his peers and his stat line will cement him as the undisputed best WR on the planet.