The Detroit Lions, as we know, were dealt a major blow this offseason when Calvin Johnson surprisingly announced that he was retiring. Since entering the league in 2007, Megatron was regarded as not just one of the best receivers, but one of the best players in the game. Now, it was clear that Johnson was not quite as dominant over the last year or two, at least compared to how productive he was when he smashing Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yards record in 2012. Let’s be clear though: Johnson was still playing at high-level. Pro Football Focus had him graded as the seventh most productive receiver this past season. And that’s why it’s so surprising, and I’m sure very disappointing for Lions fans, that Johnson’s career appears to be over.
Johnson is 30 and has reportedly been battling injuries for the past few years. I imagine that Johnson’s decision was influenced by former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis’s decision to walk away last year. Like Johnson, Willis was a banged up former All-Pro who at 30 years old decided it was time to call it quits.
I bring all this talk about Calvin Johnson now because it crossed my mind the other day whether Megatron is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer like many assume he is. So I think an investigation is in order.
Let’s look at Johnson’s credentials. He has played nine seasons in the NFL, which is a very short career by Hall of Fame standards. Megatron has been to five Pro Bowls and made three All-Pro teams, which is impressive, but it doesn’t scream “That Guy is a Hall of Famer!” What does scream “Hall of Famer” is the number of records Johnson holds. Among other records, he has the single season yardage record at 1,964 yards, he was the fastest receiver to 10,000 yards, and he is the only player with consecutive 1,600 seasons.
The problem with Johnson’s Hall of Fame credentials is that he falls short compared to other receivers in career stats. He is 27th in career receiving yards, behind the likes of Derrick Mason and Jimmy Smith, two receivers who will not make the Hall. He is also “only” 22nd in touchdown receptions and was only 47th among active players in Career Approximate Value according to Pro Football Reference before he retired.
But the case against Johnson’s Hall credentials aren’t particularly strong. Sure, his career totals might not stack up to future Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. But I brought up Derrick Mason and Jimmy Smith, who both had more career yards than Johnson. However, Mason played fifteen seasons and Smith played twelve compared to Johnson’s nine. On a per year basis, Johnson was far superior in yardage (1,291 per year) than Mason (804 per year) and Smith (1,023.92 per year), so its unfair to say that Johnson doesn’t stack up in terms of career numbers when the only thing holding him back was a lack of games played.
Using Mason and Smith as comparisons to Johnson doesn’t help his case to be in the Hall of Fame either. So let’s compare Johnson to some potential future Hall of Fame receivers. Let’s start with Reggie Wayne. Wayne has been to six pro bowls in his career compared to Johnson’s five, but Wayne has also played five more seasons than Johnson. Despite five extra seasons, Johnson already has more career touchdowns than Wayne (83 to 82) as well. Better yet, Wayne had the luxury of catching passes from Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck for his entire career while Johnson had a capable but surely not Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to him in Matthew Stafford.
Andre Johnson is similar to Calvin Johnson in the sense that he never has had a great quarterback alongside him. Plus, both Johnson’s have each led the league in receiving yards twice. Even though Andre far outpaces Calvin in terms of career stats as well as receptions on a per year basis, Andre never had a double digit touchdown season while Calvin has had four. Plus, in twelve seasons Andre Johnson has only been named All-Pro twice while Megatron has earned the honor three times.
How about Steve Smith? Again, he’s another terrific receiver who I think is deserving of Canton enshrinement. But compared to Johnson, all Smith has on Megatron is more seasons, and therefore more career numbers. Smith has played fifteen seasons and recently announced plans to return for a sixteenth, yet he is still behind Johnson in receiving touchdowns. Plus, Smith’s 929 yards per season is far behind Johnson’s 1,291 per year.
The only active receiver on track for the Hall of Fame that I think boasts a better resume in terms of per year output than Megatron is Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has more career receiving touchdowns, more receptions on a per year basis, and more Pro Bowl appearances than Johnson, all while suffering from even more inconsistent quarterback play than Megatron.
You can compare numbers and debate what a Hall of Fame receiver’s stats should look like all day long, but the key to whether or not Calvin Johnson ends up in the Hall of Fame if he doesn’t play another down is the eye test. Quite simply, among supremely talented athletes, Johnson was revered. A 6’5″ receiver who could also run a 4.35 40? How do you stop that? In short, you couldn’t really. Teams dictated their entire defensive game plans around Johnson and he was still able to tear them apart.
If you are building a dream receiving core, the only receivers definitely going higher than 2011-12 Megatron are late ’90’s Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. I could make a case for mid 2000’s Larry Fitzgerald, early 2000’s Marvin Harrison, or mid 2000’s Terrell Owens, but all of those guys still probably get picked after Megatron. In short, Megatron is one of the most dominant receivers to ever play.
Ultimately, the question with Johnson’s Hall of Fame credentials is whether voters will value his sensational numbers on a per year basis and his three-four year reign as the most dominant receiver in football over his lack of career numbers. My belief is that when it comes to Hall of Fame acceptance, players should be valued based on their ability to consistently produce excellent seasons. And in only nine years, I felt Johnson embodied that standard. His career took off in 2008 when he finished with 1,331 yards, twelve touchdowns, and finished ninth in defense-adjusted yards above replacement. He will potentially end his career by posting his seventh 1000+ receiving season and a respectable eighth placed finish in DYAR. In between, Johnson was as excellent as they come: his 2011 season, for instance, marked the highest DYAR by a receiver in the 2000’s. Megatron certainly has had his share of praise, but perhaps his reserved nature and his lack of a star quarterback throwing to him has even caused him to slip under the radar of greatness a bit as compared to flamboyant, egotistical receivers in recent years such as Moss, Owens, and now the Giants Odell Beckham Jr.
Calvin Johnson should feel confident he will one day receive a gold jacket in Canton. That isn’t to say I think he should be a first ballot Hall of Famer because there are guys who were as outstanding as Johnson who dominated a lot longer than he did. But Johnson should, and I think will, get in the Hall sooner rather than later.