Spotlight: Calvin Johnson

posted by Anthony Borbely on Jun 15th

Anthony Borbely's thoughts

After a stellar 2008 season that saw Calvin Johnson catch 78 passes for 1331 yard and 12 TDs, the expectations entering last season here high, and with good reason: Johnson's huge 2008 season was only his second season in the league and with his combination of speed, size, and athleticism; it was natural to expect another season of elite numbers. But the 2009 season was a major disappointment for Johnson and the fantasy owners who drafted him. He went from the third overall fantasy WR to 21st. I am going to take a deeper look at the reasons his numbers fell off in 2009.

Below are Johnson's statistics over his first three seasons:

Year Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2007 15 95 48 756 4
2008 16 151 78 1331 12
2009 14 137 67 984 5

When attempting to analyze Johnson, the best place to start is by taking a look at his last two seasons. There is a stark contrast between the two years. His numbers fell off drastically from 2008 to 2009. Johnson did miss two games last year and most of a third, so his numbers are not quite as bad as they appear. When prorating his numbers over a 16-game season, Johnson would have had 76 catches for 1124 yards and 5 TDs. While they are better looking than his final totals, they are still a far cry from the big numbers Johnson posted in 2008. Even with the proration, he would have still had 200 fewer yards and seven less TDs. That is a significant decline in production.

Basically, it comes down to one of two possible scenarios: Johnson will return to the form he showed in 2008 which allowed him to finish as the third-ranked fantast WR, or he will revert to last year's disappointing numbers. It basically comes down to optimism vs. skepticism and there are reasons to feel both ways.

There are several reasons to be optimistic about Johnson in 2010.

Reason 1: For the first time in his career, Johnson will enter the season with the same QB and offensive coordinator that he had in the previous season This is a much bigger deal than many people think. Last year, Johnson and Stafford had to spend most of their practice time learning a brand new offense and getting used to the play calling of new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Now, the offensive scheme is already in place and they know the plays and terminology. Instead of spending time in training camp and OTAs learning a new offense, Johnson and Stafford can focus on specifics such as developing chemistry and getting their timing down on the passing routes.

Reason 2: Matthew Stafford is no longer a rookie. Instead of battling for a starting job as he did last year, Stafford enters camp as the unquestioned starter and leader of the Lions. This is another important difference between last season and now. Last year, Stafford had to split practice time with Daunte Culpepper as they fought for the starting job. He also was a rookie trying to learn a new offense and learning how to be a professional. This year, Stafford knows this is his team and he can focus on details. That will help Johnson and the rest of the offense.

Reason 3: The Lions have added several new weapons to their offense. Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler, and Jahvid Best give the Lions some additional skill players that defenses have to account for. The Lions offense overall was not very good last year and was terribly inconsistent. For most of the season, Johnson was the only legitimate weapon the Lions had. Brandon Pettigrew had a solid stretch of three games in the middle of the season, but RB Kevin Smith averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry and WRs Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt were ineffective for most of the season. In fact, Bryant Johnson started all 16 games for the Lions and only had 35 receptions for 417 yards and 3 TDs and only had one game all year with more than 50 receiving yards. He also had ten straight games with two catches or fewer and in the last five of those games, Bryant Johnson did not even eclipse 20 receiving yards. Those numbers speak for themselves.

Let's take a closer look at the new additions to the Lions' offense and what they each bring to the table:

  • WR Nate Burleson: The difference between Burleson and Bryant Johnson is night and day. Last year, Burleson caught 63 passes for 812 yards and those are better than anything Bryant Johnson has ever done. Burleson can separate and will alleviate some of the pressure that Calvin Johnson faces. He does not need to play like a pro bowl WR; he just needs to make plays when the opportunity arises.
  • TE Tony Scheffler: Scheffler gives Stafford another big target that will be a mismatch for defenses. He is too athletic and fast for most LBs to stay with and too big for defensive backs to cover effectively. Scheffler is also a solid red zone target and that should improve the red zone efficiency.
  • RB Jahvid Best: I believe this is the most significant addition to the Lions' offense. Best runs a 4.35 40 and is a threat to take it to the house any time the ball is in his hands. Defenses have to account for Best. The LBs have to be careful about dropping back into the short zones because Best has the ability to make them pay. With the LBs having to stay a little closer to the line, Johnson will have much more room in the middle of the field and should be much more effective on slants and crossing routes. Best also will force safeties to make decisions instead of just playing deep all the time. Defensive players will hesitate and anytime that happens, the chance of a big play by the offense increases.

There are also reasons to be skeptical of Johnson this year.

Reason 1: Johnson has battled injuries throughout his career.< Johnson is an elite athlete and can do things that many WRs cannot do. This is a gift, but also a problem. Johnson can jump so high and plays with such reckless abandon that it causes him to land awkwardly at times and that has caused him to be injured. Until he proves he can stay healthy, this will be a legitimate concern. The injuries have not always caused Johnson to miss games, but the missed practice time is a big part of the lack of timing and chemistry between Johnson and the QBs he has played with.

Reason 2: Johnson has not always been consistent and the losing affected him in 2009. The Lions have lost 30 of 32 games in the last two years and it seemed to affect Johnson a great deal in 2009. The inconsistency, especially catching the ball, is more concerning. Johnson has to focus better and that could come with experience and the stability of having the same QB. But until he proves it on the field, it has to be a concern. I want to add that target percentage is not something that concerns me because Johnson only caught 52% of his targets in his huge 2008 season. Obviously, he could do better, but it is not a big issue in my opinion.

Reason 3: Even though Stafford should improve, he is still largely unproven. Stafford looks like the real deal, but like most young players, he still has to prove it on the field. There is no way to know for sure how well Stafford will play, but it should be safe to expect improvement. How much remains to be seen.


  • The Lions' offense should be significantly better with the addition of Burleson, Scheffler, and Best
  • Johnson will enter the season with the same QB and offensive coordinator for the first time in his career
  • Stafford has a year of experience under his belt


  • Johnson has battled injuries in each of his three seasons in the league
  • Despite the fact that Stafford is no longer a rookie, he is still relatively unproven
  • Regardless of the reasons, the simple fact is Johnson has only finished as a top-ten fantasy WR one time in his three years

Final thoughts

Calvin Johnson put up elite numbers in 2008 and proved he is a force to be reckoned with. In 2009, Johnson did not live up to the high expectations people expected and now there are numerous questions about him regarding the upcoming season. Last year, Johnson's numbers prorated over 16 games would have been 76/1124/5. In my opinion, those numbers are Johnson's floor. I listed some reasons to be optimistic about Johnson and those are the main reason I have high expectations this year. But there are negatives and I have addressed them. They are legitimate reasons for concern, but to me they are not nearly as significant as the positives. The important thing is that I do not see one single thing involving Calvin Johnson right now that is worse than last year. Not one thing. Everything is either better or the same. Nothing stands out to me as worse. That is why I consider last year's prorated numbers to be Johnson's floor. I expect Johnson to put up numbers similar to those that he posted in 2008.

Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Creed Bratton said:

I actually agree with the idea the top of the draft is not a place to take a risky player, but i think borbely is right in saying that there aren't many players 'safer' than calvin. If you look at which players are early round busts it's usually often due to:

1. Player gets injured
2. Player isn't as talented as we thought
3. Player got too old and fell off a cliff
4. Key teammates went down due to injury (o-line gets decimated, qb goes down for the season)

What this tells me is that the best way to minimize risk is to take the most talented players who are going to get the ball or the targets and hope they don't get hammered by injury.

I think that calvin's ability to put up numbers with the crap that has surrounded him actually speaks well for him. And last year's per game numbers weren't that bad once you take into account he left one game in the first quarter. If he plays sixteen healthy games, he's looking at a 1200 yard season last year. And there is really no reason to think that his situation is going to be any worse than it was the last two seasons. In fact, his surrounding talent has a chance to be much better.

FreeBaGel said:

Every player in fantasy football has risk. There is no risk-free wide receiver out there at all.

However, there are a lot of "safe" wide receivers right now. Or at least, significantly "safer" than Calvin.

AJ, Fitzgerald, Moss, Jennings, Roddy, Wayne, Smiff, Austin, and Colston are all guys that I would consider "safe" plays. They all have their risks, but those risks are, at least in my opinion, minor compared to the laundry list of risks that come with Calvin.

Would I take all those guys over Calvin? No way. But to consider them to not be any "safer" of a play than Calvin is silly, imo. As far as "safety" goes, Calvin is in a tier with Marshall, Djax, and Vjax....and honestly I would probably put him near the bottom of that tier.

Of course, I've always argued that "playing it safe" in fantasy football is generally silly, as the guys who explode into huge seasons are the ones that win people fantasy championships. However in the confines of this particular discussion, which is specifically about how risky a player is, Calvin comes in way behind most of those guys.

rzrback77 said:

I think that Calvin Johnson is one of those guys where his perceived ability and dynasty ranking leads to a misplaced redraft ranking. Consider that he has had three NFL seasons with the following statistics:

07 15 gms 95 targets 48 catches 50.5% for 756 yards 15.8 ypc 4 TDs and FBG year end rank (non-ppr) of WR 35
08 16 gms 151 targets 78 catches 51.7% for 1331 yards 17.1 ypc 12 TDs & FBG year end rank (non-ppr) of WR 3
09 14 gms 137 targets 73 catches 53.3% for 984 yards 14.7 ypc 5 TDs and FBG year end rank (non-ppr) of WR 21

Compare the above stats with his current ADP of WR5 and 17 overall. They just don't match up. I really think that Calvin Johnson is an exciting player and capable of extraordinary production, but to me he is just not worth the risk as the WR5.

He has several positive factors entering 2010, including the same coaching staff and QB as last year for the first time in his career. Other positives are the additions to the Lions offense, including Best, Burleson, and Scheffler. He should find a little more space on the field this year and Stafford should see improvement in his second year under center. He has the capability of being the top fantasy WR, but his past performances just don't seem to place him as a top five WR in redraft.

Negative factors include the 52% career catch percentage, the missed games, and the game to game inconsistency. In non-ppr scoring last year, he had eight of 14 games where he scored single digits fantasy points.

Calvin Johnson projections

Anthony Borbely8313101100
Message board consensus791193900