There is no shortage of great wide receivers throughout NFL history. However, few can be put into the same category as longtime Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. He not only looked the part with his size and speed, but Johnson also had the athleticism and hands to make him a rare specimen among wide receivers. In fact, it helped him earn the Megatron nickname after a character from Transformers. The caveat is that his contributions to the Lions didn’t always lead to much winning. Johnson also retired when he was still playing at a high level, leaving many to believe he could have continued playing for a few more years. However, there is no doubt that Johnson will long be remembered among the best wide receivers in NFL history and made a lasting impact on the league during his nine seasons.
Even during his time in college, there was no doubt that Johnson was destined to be a star in the NFL. During his true freshman season at Georgia Tech in 2004, he took home ACC Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 17.4 yards per catch on 48 receptions while scoring seven touchdowns. Johnson was even more productive in his next two seasons, ultimately earning First-Team All-ACC honors in all three college seasons. Johnson also won ACC Player of the Year and the coveted Biletnikoff Award as a junior in 2006. He was also named a First-Team All-American in both 2005 and 2006.
Expectations were high after the Lions drafted Johnson second overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. He didn’t disappoint, catching 48 passes for 756 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. Johnson then had a breakout season the following year, amassing over 1,300 receiving yards and catching 12 touchdown passes, tying for the league lead in that category despite playing for a team that finished 0-16 during the 2008 NFL season.
Even though he played for a winless team during his second season in the NFL, the rest of the league talked about Johnson. The nickname Megatron, given to him by Roy Williams, a teammate of Johnson’s with the Lions in 2007 and 2008, caught on with fans. Anybody who watched him play quickly recognized that Johnson was not just another wide receiver and was destined to be something special.
Fans, opponents, and teammates marveled at his unique combination of size and speed. Before being drafted, Johnson was measured at 6’5’’ at the NFL Combine while running the 40-yard dash in just 4.35 seconds. On top of those physical attributes, Johnson’s ball skills, leaping ability, and body control allowed him to create space, even when double-teamed, and always come down with the ball, even when he was well covered. Any ball thrown near him would be caught, and nobody could if Johnson couldn’t catch it.
To the surprise of no one who saw him early in his career, Johnson went on to set records and consistently perform at an elite level. He went to six straight Pro Bowls between 2010 and 2015. Johnson also led the NFL in receiving yards in both 2011 and 2012. During the 2012 season, immediately after signing an extension that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history, Johnson had arguably the best season a wide receiver has ever had. He set the all-time single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards, catching 122 passes that year while averaging 122.8 receiving yards per game. It was a season that may never be matched or replicated by any other receiver.
Johnson had at least 1,000 receiving yards in seven of his nine seasons when all was said and done. He finished his career with over 11,600 receiving yards and 83 receiving touchdowns. He owns more than a dozen franchise records and several NFL records. Almost no other wide receiver in league history can match his accomplishments, helping to make Johnson a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he played on bad teams in Detroit throughout his career. During his nine seasons in Detroit, the Lions went 54-90. They never won a division title and only made the playoffs three times, losing in the Wild Card Round each time. It must have been endlessly frustrating for Johnson to play at an elite level year after year but continue to lose games and miss the playoffs. It was certainly a contributing factor in his decision to retire while he was still considered among the NFL’s best wide receivers.
Years after Johnson’s retirement, the Lions haven’t come close to finding a wide receiver like him. However, with the arrival of Dan Campbell as head coach in 2021, the Lions have been transformed into a competitive team. Instead of expecting them to fail, sportsbooks and those who participate in NFL betting now expect the Lions to reach the playoffs and perform like a bonafide contender. Team-wise, the Lions are far from what they were during Johnson’s career. But there is no denying that Johnson left a lasting impression on the Lions and the entire NFL and still deserves to be remembered as one of the best wide receivers of all time.
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