In just more than two weeks, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will start his eighth NFL season like he’s never begun one before: without wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Gone is Megatron, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound unicorn who burned defenses deep as well as he reeled in contested passes. Gone is the ultimate safety blanket for an NFL quarterback.
That’s a harsh reality, and one Stafford is publicly in denial about.
“Obviously, we used to feature Calvin, and everybody kind of got theirs after that,” Stafford told SiriusXM Radio in June. “It’s going to be, I think, tougher for defenses in a certain way in that they don’t know who we’re going to. There’s no guy to key in on.”
Detroit certainly will spread the ball around, the direct result of losing a unique talent.
Deep down, Stafford knows the Lions have to figure out how to move on from arguably the best wide receiver of this generation. They realized they had to get serious about it the moment Johnson retired in March, which explains the $20 million guaranteed they threw at free agent Marvin Jones, who had served the role as a No. 2 receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Jones will not be Johnson, not even the hobbled, slowing down version that gutted out last season, when he still racked up 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns. Jones is not a game-changing receiver, and even Stafford has admitted that.
But Jones has the potential to be a better player than his production in Cincinnati would suggest, and the Lions were wise to take into account the role he played with the Bengals when identifying him as a potential replacement. They certainly could have done worse in terms of abilities and fit.
With the Bengals, Jones was the clear No. 2 threat behind one of the game’s elite in A.J. Green. He posted a respectable stat line of 65 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns last season after posting a 51-712-10 line in his last healthy season, 2013. Last year, he often fought for targets across the middle with rising tight end Tyler Eifert in an offense as balanced as any in the league. In his role and in Cincinnati’s scheme, he was simply a piece of the puzzle.
Detroit likely will try to use him in similar ways. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will use two running backs interchangeably and heavily in the passing game. He’ll simplify the approach for Stafford, in an offense where so much is determined by pre-snap reads. And he’ll trust the diversity of targets to create open-space opportunities in the intermediate passing game.
The latter is where Jones fit Cincinnati best. With Green’s ability to take both the No. 1 cornerback and free safety deep, Jones ran a number of underneath routes where he could take the ball and flash up field with his quickness. His 27 forced missed tackles over his past two seasons showcase the kind of short-range threat he can be.
Jones also worked a number of deep routes of his own, with playing speed that appears to be a little better than the 4.46 40-yard dash time he posted at the NFL Scouting Combine. That was essential to Cincinnati’s offense, which used those kinds of vertical routes to open up swing passes for running back Giovani Bernard. It’s an idea that plays to the strength of Lions running back Theo Riddick, who posted 80 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns last season.
The component that will be missing for Jones in Detroit is having someone with the skills of a No. 1 receiver lined up alongside him. Golden Tate is limited to being a good slot receiver, and nobody else on the roster has the speed and talent to push the safeties back.
That’s going to pose a bigger challenge for Jones, who often enjoyed the athletic advantage over No. 2 cornerbacks, something the Bengals exploited on occasion. Case in point, a game against the Baltimore Ravens last season, when Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw Jones’ way on three straight plays in a match-up against Rashaan Melvin, an undrafted cornerback who has bounced around the league his first two years. Jones worked the overmatched cornerback, baiting him into a pass interference call on an out route when Melvin played back, and then beating him over the top for a touchdown on a seam route when Melvin pressed. Jones doesn’t figure to enjoy too many match-ups as favorable as that one this season.
One of the toughest match-ups Jones faced last year was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters and the Kansas City Chiefs. It was Jones’ worst game of the season, featuring just two targets. The first was a 4-yard reception. The second was a dropped fade route over Sean Smith, with Jones perhaps rattled by the physical, cocky play Peters subjected him to all afternoon.
On the flip side, Jones did work Bills rising star cornerback Stephon Gilmore for nine catches, 95 yards and score just two weeks later. That one featured a gorgeous deep post route that Jones reeled in with ball skills Gilmore couldn’t top.
Most of the skills are there for Jones. His body control, size and catch radius are lesser versions of what Megatron showcased for the last nine seasons.
But the top-end speed isn’t there. Nor is proof that his production will hold up against a team’s top cornerback. All of which makes it likely that Detroit will attempt to spread the ball around. Considering Seattle and Carolina made the playoffs last season without imposing No. 1 receivers, the drop off from Johnson to Jones might not be critical as long as Jones can effectively fill a role in a diverse offense.
However, those two teams have elite defenses and running games that Detroit does not. The Lions finished 16th in defensive DVOA, which measures total team performance, and 27th in rushing DVOA.
In short, the margin for error has shrunk for the Lions and Stafford, who could always rely on heaving it up in the direction of Johnson when a play broke down. Now, Detroit is going to have to dink and dunk its way toward efficient scoring drives. It’s a difficult way to live in the NFL.
Then again, so is just about any path in the season after Calvin Johnson retires.