If Calvin Johnson Retires, Can Any WR Fill His Shoes?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 10, 2016

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) during warm ups before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field in Detroit, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Someday, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson will be viewed as a rare football fossil. We’ll look back on his career, his production and, most of all, his blend of both incredible size and speed, and only then truly appreciate the athletic gifts he used to physically dominate defensive backs.

That day could be coming soon. Too soon.

We’ve reached the point where Johnson’s retirement announcement is beginning to feel inevitable, a matter of filling out the necessary paperwork. Which may have been the case privately for quite some time, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that because of his ailing physical condition, Johnson told close friends and family 2015 would be his final season.

The 30-year-old who has struggled with severe ankle issues while missing five games over the past three years also told Lions head coach Jim Caldwell of his intention to retire. He did that after the season, according to Schefter, which is when Caldwell asked him to take his time and not make a rushed decision.

So now we wait, but it seems Johnson decided on his football future long ago anyway.

"He's pretty content with his decision,” a close source told Schefter. Then the public farewells started rolling in. First from teammates…

And then from those who faced the often-unfair challenge of containing the fast-moving bundle of muscle.

As Brett Favre reminded us annually during far too many offseasons, retirements aren’t officially official until they’re, well, official. That also could be imminent, as Terry Foster of CBS Detroit reported Johnson might announce his decision this week.

For now, though, let’s assume Johnson has indeed played his final snap. Let’s also assume we’ll be looking at a strange, barren-feeling NFL at the wide receiver position in 2016.

There’s no shortage of skill, and the talent faucet certainly isn’t slowing. There are plenty of receivers ready to dazzle you with catches that have no business being catches. The Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. often needs just one hand to reel in footballs that seem destined for the fifth row. The same applies to the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, and the Steelers’ Antonio Brown can ignite the grass below his feet while weaving through tackle attempts after the catch.

But they’re all cut from a different piece of receiver fabric from the material Johnson came from. He stands 6’5” and weighs 237 pounds, which means he’s carrying around a whole lot of human. Yet, famously during the 2007 scouting combine, Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, and he did it using borrowed shoes.

For some mind-blowing perspective, Beckham recorded a time of 4.43 seconds during his scouting combine appearance in 2014. His measurements? Oh, just 5’11” and 198 pounds.

There’s a torch that needs to be passed then from Johnson to the next high-speed, football-catching tank. But does that receiver even exist? Or are we about to witness the end of a one-man era?

Let’s hope not, because there’s a certain fascination with the NFL’s large, fast men, and it shouldn’t die with Johnson. They’re the league’s graceful rhinos, with enough speed to accelerate past coverage deep and more than enough size to not just create space but also own it.

For nine seasons, Johnson has been the leader of a dynamic breed. He’s the kingpin of receivers who are able to be whatever a quarterback or offensive coordinator desires, either sprinting deep or hammering away up the middle in a possession receiver role.

A handful of receivers come to mind when you close your eyes and picture the carnage left behind by similar talents. But few reach Johnson’s level of supreme bulk.

Let’s be generous and in our search for the next Johnson use a height/weight cutoff of 6’2” and 220 pounds. That not-so-hypothetical receiver is massive enough, sure, but still 17 pounds lighter than Johnson.

Using that criteria, these names start to glow.

Active WRs with Johnson-ish size
Mike Evans6'5"231
Brandon Marshall6'4"230
Dez Bryant6'2"220
Julio Jones6'3"220
Demaryius Thomas6'3"229
Source: NFL.com

That list notably excludes the Bengals’ A.J. Green, who has the height part more than covered at 6’4”, but he tips the scales at 207 pounds.

Brandon Marshall established a new Jets franchise single-season receiving yards record in 2015. However, he’ll turn 32 this offseason, meaning his peak years may also be coming to an end. And again, from strictly a weight perspective, I’m being generous by including the Falcons’ Julio Jones and the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant.

But from a talent perspective, those two certainly belong in this discussion. Jones led the league in 2015 with 1,871 receiving yards, and he became one of just three pass-catchers in NFL history to record 130-plus catches in one season.

Jones, who posted a Johnson-like 40-yard-dash time of 4.39 seconds, regularly demonstrated both his long-striding speed and his reliable hands to win jump balls in traffic. Those two tools led to his 53.8 catch rate on balls traveling 20-plus yards, which was second among all receivers targeted on half of their teams' deep throws, per Pro Football Focus.

Bryant suffered through an injury-plagued 2015, playing just nine games. But he’s not far removed from a healthy 2014, when the 27-year-old was a red-zone behemoth, scoring 16 touchdowns. At the time, it was his third straight season with double-digit TDs.

That’s also when Bryant completed his fifth NFL season. Jones just finished his fifth year, too, which is convenient because it gives us equal footing to compare the two slightly lighter Calvin Johnsons to the real thing.

Johnson, Bryant and Jones after five seasons
Calvin Johnson3665,87249
Dez Bryant3815,42456
Julio Jones4146,20134
Source: NFL.com

Bryant is winning where it matters most: the scoreboard. He’s 22 touchdowns ahead of Jones during the time period in question.

But Jones has rocketed away in the other two categories, which becomes even more remarkable when you remember he played only five games in 2013 because of a foot fracture.

While we’re remembering important details, let’s also note that two of the three receivers listed above have benefited from quality quarterback play throughout their entire careers. Jones has always been linked with Matt Ryan, while Bryant has thrived while paired with Tony Romo.

Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford didn’t show up in Detroit until Johnson’s third season. The former Georgia Tech standout somehow still roasted defensive backs for 1,331 yards in 2008, even while coping with quarterback play that was, to be polite, substandard (and to be not polite, a toxic wasteland).

Our search for a true Johnson clone turns to the promise of youth then.

The Buccaneers’ Mike Evans is still adapting at the professional level to some extent, which can be said about any receiver through just two seasons. When we look at both his size and early-career quarterbacks, the parallels to Johnson quickly become evident.

Evans is the same height as Johnson and only six pounds lighter. He dealt with plenty of sprayed balls from Mike Glennon and Josh McCown during his rookie season, followed by a developing Jameis Winston in 2015. Winston progressed as the year went along but overall still finished with a mediocre passer rating of 84.2.

That makes the Evans-Johnson comparison equal, or at least much closer to it. Something interesting and even a little startling happens when we compare Evans and Johnson over their first two seasons.

Evans vs. Johnson after two seasons
Mike Evans1422,25715
Calvin Johnson1262,08716
Source: NFL.com

But you’re looking at only the surface layer there, and what’s underneath puts a dent in Evans’ Megatron imitation.

He slogged through a classic case of slippery hands during his second season. Evans had the league’s second-most drops in 2015, with 15 on 146 targets, per PFF. Despite his injuries this past season, Johnson still played 16 games and saw plenty of work, too, finishing with 142 targets and only dropping five catchable balls.

The hope, obviously, is that over time Evans’ hands become a little more silky-smooth and reliable. He’s young and has the physical tools, so maybe many years from now when we’re having a Hall of Fame debate, these words will be said with more seriousness: “You know, he always reminded me of Calvin Johnson.”

That’s still a faraway hope right now, and it admittedly requires some wishful daydreaming, especially after Evans posted a 40-yard-dash time much slower than Johnson’s bounding gallop (4.53 seconds).

If he does indeed retire this year, we may not ever see another Johnson. Others such as Bryant and Jones will come close and already have. But those who match his speed don’t do the same with size. And often, those who match his size can’t quite equal Johnson’s trusted hands.

He holds the all-time single-season receiving yards record (1,964 yards in 2012), and as ESPN Stats & Info noted, between 2011 and 2013, Johnson also logged the most all-time yards over any three-year span.

He’s unique in every way, from body type to what he’s done with that hulking frame, and the new historic benchmarks set. Johnson ushered in an era that featured receivers who were both towering and fast, without sacrificing one quality for the other.

We can only hope now there is another Johnson, because watching the original was a whole lot of fun.


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