ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- His knees ached all season. His finger was busted, too. He practiced less than he ever had, and there were times last season when Calvin Johnson, he of superhuman ability, couldn’t be his usual self.
Even after Johnson's 329-yard game against the Dallas Cowboys in October, former Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz indicated Johnson was not completely healthy. He probably wasn’t for the final three months of the 2013 season.
He even missed two games in 2013, something that has happened only once before in his career. In the two games he missed -- and in others in which he was obviously limited because of his multiple injuries -- the Detroit offense stagnated. This is something the Lions can’t let happen in 2014, regardless of Johnson’s health.
"You always have to be aware of the wear and tear of this game on your players," new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "It’s something that, you know -- I don’t want to call it a pitch count -- but you’re always cognizant of how much are these guys running in practice, how many hits they are taking, who is coming across the middle to catch this pass that is going to possibly get him hit.
"So, you know, I think that’s always -- regardless of how old a player is -- you’re always aware that this game is a tough game played by tough men. By the end of the season, everyone’s got a little something, so I think that it’s a good point that you have to be aware of those things."
The Lions were all too aware last season of what happened when Johnson didn’t play. Detroit was held under 300 yards of offense three times last season. One of those games was in a snowstorm in Philadelphia. The other two were the games Johnson didn’t play in. This left the Lions with an obvious problem to fix and a somewhat easy problem to solve.
Detroit needs an outside receiver to complement Johnson. Even though Johnson is only 28 and in his prime, that same receiver could also become an eventual replacement for Johnson, especially if those knee injuries he dealt with last season begin to slow him down. After Thursday's release of Nate Burleson, the team's only other true veteran receiver, the Lions are almost certainly going to be heavily targeting both the slot and outside positions in the next few months.
Detroit has two options for how to go about finding these complements for Johnson. One is to draft a receiver in hopes he learns from Johnson and takes pressure off him, giving defenses yet another problem to worry about besides Johnson and running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.
The other option is to go into free agency and emerge with an established receiver. This could be trickier with Detroit’s salary-cap issues -- the team is slightly under the expected 2014 cap with free agency less than a month away.
That adds to the challenge as Detroit attempts to find another speed/size wide receiver to line up opposite Johnson. Not surprisingly, Lombardi said he would have to evaluate every player individually when asked whether he wants a tall or fast receiver to line up opposite Johnson.
"I’d like big and fast," Lombardi said. "But, listen, if I was going to give a stock answer, I know what Calvin can do, how he can stretch the field, what his strengths are. I don’t really know what his weaknesses are right now, but, I’m sure, maybe there’s something.
"So you would say, 'Well, someone to work underneath.' You know, that would be an easy answer, but if that guy exists and there’s someone better that maybe does a little something, I’d rather have the better guy."
If they go the free-agency route, they could end up going with someone who is coming off an injury and could present a risk, like the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin, or someone who is close in age to Johnson, which would fix Detroit’s immediate complementary problem but not the succession plan the team will eventually need to implement.
So the draft, with a very deep and talented receiver class, might be the way to go to find a replacement. Johnson, the only true veteran receiver on the roster, can spend time mentoring any potential draft selection. It is a spot at which the Lions could look early in the draft, depending on who is available at No. 10, and then again in the second round. The obvious selection, if he were around, would be Clemson’s Sammy Watkins. The early entrant has the makeup of a special receiver and would force teams to not focus so much of their coverage on Johnson.
Beyond Watkins, there are a lot of talented options in what could be one of the more talented receiver drafts in recent memory. Of the top 100 players in ESPN.com's draft rankings, 14 are wide receivers; eight receivers are in the top 50.
As Lombardi figures out what he would like, his boss, head coach Jim Caldwell, has previously liked tall receivers in the slot and outside. Almost every receiver he has had as a starter in Baltimore and Indianapolis has been at least 6 feet tall. In this draft, among those top 14 receivers, 10 are at least that tall -- including Watkins and the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers listed, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and USC’s Marqise Lee.
So after a season that confirmed the Lions desperately need a partner for Johnson on the outside, it looks like the team should have ample options to find one.