ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford will wake up Wednesday morning with new football realities. For the first time, Johnson will be a retired player and Stafford will rise as the main face of the Detroit Lions franchise.
This is Day 1 of the post-Megatron era, coinciding with the start of the new league year. What does this mean for Detroit?
1. This is Matthew Stafford’s team now. In case there was any question, Stafford is the lone star left for the Lions. Ezekiel Ansah and Darius Slay could get there at some point, and Golden Tate, Glover Quin and DeAndre Levy are nice pieces. But none carries the wattage of Johnson or the inherent star power of being a quarterback. So Stafford’s the main guy now for the first time since he was a baby-faced junior at the University of Georgia. He has led well before – 2013 against Dallas stands out -- and has done so throughout his time with the Lions in various ways. But Johnson had always been a major factor and the player most closely identified with the Lions. He was a known commodity even for casual NFL fans. The Lions lose that with Johnson’s retirement, and Stafford’s the closest thing to it.
2. Stafford’s life will be different. Johnson was a safety blanket for Stafford and every other quarterback he played with. His talent was so remarkable, there was always the philosophy of taking shots to Johnson because of his tendency to make them work. The Lions no longer have that option, so more will have to fall on Stafford to continue to make smart decisions. When Stafford was without Johnson on the field, whether for a play or a full game, he completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,453 yards and 18 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. He clearly became more comfortable the past three seasons in such scenarios, completing 60.1 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions; last year, he completed 65 percent of his passes with Johnson off the field. So it’ll be different for Stafford, but he should be able to handle it.
3. Say goodbye the Matt Millen error for good. Johnson’s retirement signals the true end of the Millen experiment gone wrong. Johnson was the best pick Millen made and turned into an all-time great, but too many of Millen’s decisions failed and forced the franchise into a total rebuild after the winless 2008 season. It led to the drafting of Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, and it has taken Detroit a half-decade to build out of it. There’s a chance two players from the Millen era will be back with the Lions in 2016 -- backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky and long-snapper Don Muhlbach -- but Johnson is the last major player from that time period to move on from Detroit. Don't be surprised if Orlovsky returns to the Lions for 2016 since the Lions need a backup quarterback and he is a veteran, known quantity. That's not a guarantee, though, because as of Tuesday that situation was still fluid. There is interest, though.
4. Eric Ebron is going to get a lot more attention. Johnson had 144 targets last season, meaning there will likely be 100 or so passes from Stafford to get divvied up differently next season. Some will go to Tate, some to whomever the Lions bring in to replace Johnson and some to the No. 3 receiver and to the running backs. The main beneficiary could be Ebron, the third-year tight end and the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft. Ebron showed potential last season, and could be the biggest size mismatch and field-stretching option Detroit ends up having next season. So the opportunity will be there for Ebron to break out. Whether or not he does could mean a lot for the Lions’ offense.
5. The receiving corps will change. Johnson’s retirement frees up another $11.1 million, and while the Lions aren’t expected to go crazy overpaying a receiver in free agency, that money offers some flexibility. Knowing Johnson won’t be around means the Lions can focus on one of the better receivers available – Marvin Jones, Travis Benjamin, Anquan Boldin or Jermaine Kearse. It also likely means the Lions are going to look at a receiver somewhere in the draft, potentially early. New players will be counted on to replace at least some of Johnson’s production. General manager Bob Quinn acknowledged that Tuesday, saying, “We all understand that no one player could ever replace Calvin.” The Lions do need to find a group of players to pick up that work.