According to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News, Sanders said losing Johnson would be a grueling situation for the Lions: “It would certainly be difficult. He’s given a lot to our organization and our team and such a great player and one of those guys you just love having in your organization. Hey, it would be devastating, no question about it.”
Johnson appears headed toward retirement at the age of 30, with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting the former All-Pro wideout told a small group of family and friends prior to the 2015 season he planned to retire and said the same thing to Lions head coach Jim Caldwell when the season ended.
Schefter added, citing sources, that Caldwell told Johnson "to take his time" before making anything official.
Sanders, who surprised the Lions when he retired after 10 seasons at the age of 31, told Katzenstein that the team could be trying to push Johnson back onto the field for one more year: "Some guys are sort of on the fence, and maybe you can talk them out of it and so we’ll see what happens."
If Johnson doesn't change his mind, Sanders did acknowledge the Lions "can’t replace him," even though the franchise won't be able to hang its head if things don't work out because "you have to believe going into a season that you have a fighting chance."
While there hasn't been an official date for Johnson to make a decision, he did issue a statement (per Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com) in January that he "would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future."
Katzenstein noted the Lions would prefer to have an answer from Johnson before June so they can try to allocate some of their financial resources in an attempt to replace him.
Sanders said something similar, noting "we’ll give him until June or so, and then we should start knocking on his door."
Lions owner Rod Wood told reporters (per Rothstein) he's spoken with Johnson "a couple times" and the team plans to give Johnson as much time as he needs to reach a final decision.
Last year marked the first time since 2012 that Johnson started all 16 regular-season games. He remains one of the NFL's best weapons, racking up 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns, but his 13.8 yards per reception marked a career low.
Given the physical toll on Johnson's body, as well as the uncertainty around Detroit's playoff prospects following a 7-9 season, he's earned the right to decide what he wants to do. It's a huge decision for the player and franchise, one that Sanders knows very well.
Playing in the NFL is something that requires 100 percent commitment, so if there's any doubt in Johnson's mind, it could lead to another early retirement for a superstar in Detroit.