Fittingly, this article is all about transformation–how Megatron’s retirement will transform the Detroit Lions, and how you may want to transform your dynasty team as a result.
Many of you reading this article may already have up your minds, telling yourselves, “no way Calvin Johnson walks away from all that money.” Coincidentally, he has very likely done the same (made up his mind).
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Here is some of the best advice you are going to receive at this stage of the offseason: If you’re holding onto Johnson on any of your dynasty rosters, and there is an owner in your league willing to pay a third-round rookie pick or better for him, SELL! I say this with unequivocal conviction, and yes I’ve thought this all the way through. Could I sit here and talk myself into holding Johnson for any one of a number of reasons like many others in the dynasty community are currently doing? Sure. Could I, in turn, do the same to you, persuading you to hold him because:
(1) The upside of a Megatron return is better than throwing a rookie-draft dart
(2) He could change his mind, and play again for the Lions in 2016
(3) He could change his mind and additionally convince the Lions to trade him, or let him out of his contract so he could play for another team in 2016 (such as the New England Patriots, because of course that is what we say every time we recede to our magical fantasy dreamland where New England signs every aging star and they all score 23 touchdowns and posterize the league)
(4) Perhaps he doesn’t change his mind, but there could be Rotoworld posts during the offseason that make it sound like he might, causing a temporary spike in his value. But, I won’t, because I owe every single one of you a duty to provide you with the best guidance I possibly can when it comes to roster moves, and decisions that, in the world of dynasty, impact your fortunes for years to come.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my Detroit Lions Dynasty Capsule, I’ll spell it out for you briefly here. While no one can say with absolutely certainty that Johnson will never play another snap in the NFL, I think it is far more likely than not that this is now the case. Think about the player, and more importantly the man. When have you seen Johnson shamelessly plug a brand, be the topic of daytime sports media debate for anything character related, especially having to do with his integrity? Good luck in your internet search to find a single example. Johnson has always been a humble, hard-working player who says little, speaks softly, and leads by example through his otherworldly on-field performance. I think his word is gold, and think it is far more likely than not you have seen the last of Johnson on an NFL field. And, I don’t fault him for it one bit. If the man is ready to live his life beyond football, more power to him. He’s done it all on the football field, and leaves with nothing to prove, and legs he can still use for walking.
As a resident of Detroit, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the entirety of Johnson’s career from start to finish. I can remember watching games over the past few seasons where I’d think to myself, as he smashed down to the turf, “Wow…I don’t know how much more of this he can take.” Megatron played at two speeds: very-fast speed, and you’ve-never-seen-a-6-foot-5-inch-wide-receiver-with-wheels-like-those speed. Not only was he among the fastest receivers in the game throughout most of his career, he left it on the field on every single play. Just off the top of my head, I can recall numerous instances where the Lions were in a tight contest late, and Matt Stafford would air it out down the sideline. Johnson, going full throttle on a streak would leave the ground at top speed, hauling in the pass like only he could, at full-extension, and then would come crashing down to the turf, only to get up and do it again one play later as the only true playmaker on the team for a good chunk of his career. The man played in 135 regular season NFL games throughout his nine years in the league. Think about that when you are lamenting that he’s retiring too early with sooo much left in the tank. In all my years watching football, I’d be hard pressed to think of a receiver who’s had as many hard landings on artificial turf as Johnson has. Couple that with the fact that it is generally the shorter receivers who have the longest careers, and perhaps now you’re beginning to realize why I’m advising you the way I am.
Finally, if he did return, what are your realistic expectations for his production moving forward? His performance has been noticeably declining over the past two seasons (see: Eye Test), and that trend would inevitably continue, as he would be turning 31 during the first month of the 2016 season. As I’ve already alluded to, Johnson plays with everything he has to give, and with reports indicating that he’d mentioned retirement prior to the 2015 season, this past season very likely was him leaving every last ounce of will he had out there on the field to overcome nagging injuries and produce at the highest level one more time for himself, for his fans, and for the game.
As dynasty players, we have a tendency to see things like this and project our own wishes on to situations and players—particularly those players we own on our fantasy rosters, and even more so those players we’ve held a stake in for a long time. Don’t be a hoarder. Let go. Help your team, and sell him to the guy who can’t let go, and even in the incredibly unlikely event he decides to return to play another year, you can look your roster up and down, and know that you did what was best for your team’s future. Your team will be better off.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at the impact Calvin Johnson’s retirement will have on a few of the Lions’ players.In case you missed it, I also offer a more in-depth analysis on the following players in my aforementioned Detroit Lions Dynasty Capsule, which you can find here.
Matthew Stafford (Stock Down)
Matthew Stafford’s fantasy value will take the most immediate, biggest, and most detrimental hit due to Johnson’s retirement. Over the course of Stafford’s career, Johnson has accounted for 23.95 percent of Stafford’s completed passes, and 67 of 163 his passing touchdowns (just over 41 percent). For some perspective here, since entering the league in 2011, Julio Jones has accounted for 34 of Matt Ryan’s 136 touchdowns over that span (25 percent). When a quarterback loses the player responsible for nearly half of his passing touchdowns, that’s generally not a good thing. While I think Stafford is underrated by the dynasty community in light of how comparable his numbers have been to this point in his career to Phillip Rivers’ first seven seasons. I’m no dummy, and realize Johnson’s retirement is going to sting. However, don’t jump ship. The Lions have no choice but to improve their protection up-front, and I believe they will do so through the draft, and also free agency. Assuming Alshon Jeffery re-signs with the Bears, there aren’t really any big name receivers who will be available on the open market this off-season. However, this year’s draft class is littered with receiver talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lions add one somewhere between the 2nd and 4th rounds who could make an immediate impact. Also, the Lions running game should be improved with Ameer Abdullah entering his second season, and Jim Caldwell hopefully being less inept. Finally, as you’ll read below, the Lions are not completely devoid of pass catchers, so I think that—while Stafford should see a downswing in production in 2016, he is a great buy-low candidate.
Golden Tate (Stock Up)
If you read my Detroit Lions Capsule, this will be redundant, but deserves repeating nonetheless. Since coming to the Lions, in games where Johnson was relegated to “decoy” duties (using all games where Johnson was targeted five times or less), Tate, over those five games, averaged 6.8 receptions, 8.6 targets, 75.8 receiving yards, and one touchdown per game. Then, I looked at the three games Johnson missed in 2014, and found Tate averaged 8 receptions, 10 targets, 116.33 yards, and .66 touchdowns per game. I put those calculations together, and found that in games Johnson was either out, or targeted less than five times, Tate averaged 7.4 catches, 9.3 targets, 96.06 yards, and .83 touchdowns per game. Extrapolating that out over a 16-game NFL season, the data shows that if Tate performed for an entire season the way he has when Johnson has either been out, or targeted less than five times, he’d accumulate: 118.4 receptions, 148.8 targets, 1,536.96 yards, and 13.28 TDs. I am going to be somewhat bullish with my predictions on Tate because I think he is entirely capable of handling the number one duties for the Lions in 2016. Though I don’t think he’ll compile the kind of numbers the data above revealed, I think Tate will go for over 1,200 yards and score eight or more touchdowns next season. He has tremendous hands, makes plays after the catch and can make tacklers miss, and is not one of those receivers who rely purely on speed. He runs crisp routes, and uses great body positioning to gain leverage over defensive backs, and make the tough catches. Tate is a buy for me, and I think you can count on his being a sure-fire WR2 next season with a chance of being a top-12 receiver.
Ameer Abdullah (Stock Up)
When you lose your top receiver and have a superbly talented, young running back that’s showed flashes of brilliance, but has gone under-utilized and has been under-blocked-for, what do you do? That’s right, you feed him the rock. Abdullah has all the makings of a three-down back if the Lions coaching staff will simply let him loose. Say what you want about his “small hands,” or his fumbling issues, the kid has skills as a runner and as a pass catcher, and was simply used incorrectly by the Lions in 2015. I explain this in great detail in my Detroit Lions Dynasty Capsule. As the Lions offense evolves in the post-Megatron era, look for them to make huge strides with their rushing attack, improving mightily on a league-worst performance in 2015.
Eric Ebron (Stock Up)
I think, statistically, Ebron will benefit a great deal from Johnson’s departure. Though I believe it will be Tate who benefits most as the guy Stafford looks to on most “gotta-have-it” plays, I think Ebron will very likely be next on the totem pole. He’s 6-foot-4, big bodied, ran a 4.6 40-yard-dash two years ago at the NFL Combine, and basically played like a receiver in college. The talk about his “drop issues” is greatly exaggerated, and the magical year for tight ends and receivers to “break out” is generally their third year in the league, which will be 2016 for Ebron. Furthermore, he’s turning just 23-years-old in April. With so many targets leaving the Lions, they can’t all go to Tate, and Ebron, who will be in his third season with Stafford, should benefit as the recipient of a great many of those targets. Look for Ebron to make great strides next season.
T.J. Jones/Incoming Wide Receiver (Stock Up)
T.J. Jones would have improved in 2016 regardless of whether Johnson retired or not. He missed his entire rookie season with nerve damage stemming from a shoulder injury, but reports are that he’s feeling as normal as possible now. With Johnson’s departure he’s got a shot to earn a bigger role, and could make for an interesting end-of-roster guy as a potential slot target for Stafford. His measurables compare well with Willie Snead, and he’ll certainly have the opportunity to prove himself as a reliable pass catcher in 2016.
If the Lions do draft a receiver somewhere in the first four rounds of the draft, depending upon who they take, I’ll likely be intrigued. As I mentioned before, Stafford will be losing a receiver that accounted for 25 percent of his completed passes. Though I think the Lions look to enhance their running game in 2016, and that Tate and Ebron benefit most from Johnson’s departure, I believe Stafford’s arm is more than capable of producing more than a couple of fantasy relevant pass catchers, so whoever the new addition may be could wind up being a guy I’m targeting late in rookie drafts.
Theo Riddick (Stock Down)
This may have less to do with Johnson’s retirement than it does the evolution of the Lions offense, generally, but warrants mentioning. Theo Riddick had a spectacular year catching the ball out of the backfield as well as when lined up as a receiver, but I simply do not think you should expect that type of production to continue. In my Detroit Lions Dynasty Capsule, I went into extensive detail explaining what I feel contributed to Riddick’s success in 2015, and I think with an improved offensive line, and revamped running game, that you should see a decrease in Riddick’s production in 2016 and beyond.
The Detroit Lions as a Team (Stock Down)
This one should not come as much surprise. You don’t lose a hall-of-fame wide receiver on a team that ranked last in the league in rushing and improve as an offensive unit. The Lions will be lacking a significant deep threat unless they draft a player offering that type of skill-set. The way the roster is right now, you have a bunch of guys who you look at and think, “man, now here’s a guy could do really well in the slot” (including Riddick). A lack of diversity on offense typically is not a recipe for success. With that said, I don’t think the Lions will be hurt by Johnson’s departure as bad as you think. They will be freeing up a ton of cap space, even over the next two seasons, and then even more three years removed from Johnson’s retirement. Their offensive line and rushing attack can only improve, and I believe they will add a deep threat receiver to their roster this offseason. So, while the departure will serve detriment to the Lions’ immediate future, I think they will rebound nicely from this, and provide a number of fantasy relevant seasons both through their running game, and off of Stafford’s arm.
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