Another big receiver isn’t necessary for Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

The Lions never replaced Barry Sanders.

To this day, he still holds nine of the top 10 rushing totals in a season in franchise history, all of which were 1,300-plus yards. Since he retired in 1999, Lions running backs have had just four 1,000-yard campaigns.

If Calvin Johnson retires, which he’s contemplating, the Lions would likely never replace him either, but in the short term, they’d have to try.

Outside of Andre Johnson in 2003 and Julio Jones in 2011, draft analyst Lance Zierlein said he hasn’t seen any wide receivers in recent drafts comparable to Johnson’s combination of talent, size and speed.

Since the Lions drafted Johnson second overall in 2007, his 11,619 receiving yards, 83 touchdown catches and 46 100-yard games lead the NFL.

According to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., the top three receivers in the draft are Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss, Michael Thomas of Ohio State and Josh Doctson of TCU. None are listed taller than 6-foot-3, and colleges often boost the height of receivers.

“None of these guys are going to be as long-limbed as Calvin,” Zierlein said. “They may be close in speed coming out, but no one’s going to have the size.

“Randy Moss had the size, but he didn’t have the build. Nobody fits the length, the build and the speed that Calvin Johnson had. Some guys have come close, but that’s why he is so unique.”

But there’s no reason to think finding a 6-foot-5, 237-pound replacement for Johnson would be the best way to replicate his production for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Several small receivers have been among the best in the NFL in recent years — Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and T.Y. Hilton among them.

Even if the Lions couldn’t find a top-tier option in free agency — where the group is lackluster behind Alshon Jeffery — or the draft, they might not need to replace Johnson with a superstar. During their recent stretch of excellence, the Seahawks have had a solid run-first offense that makes plays in the passing game absent the presence of a true No. 1 receiver.

“I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world (if Johnson retires) simply because for too long Detroit was too dependent on Stafford to Calvin Johnson,” Zierlein said. “And I think it became a crutch for Stafford and, I think, hindered what the Lions could do. They got too dependent on Calvin for too long.

“If it happens, it’ll just force Detroit to do something that they’re in need of doing anyway, which is diversifying their offense.”

With Stafford in place on a hefty contract, it’s hard to imagine the Lions suddenly shifting toward a run-first system. However, coach Jim Caldwell has often said the most important things for a team to do are run the ball, stop the run and limit turnovers. Improving the run game would help alleviate the loss of Johnson.

Whether it was related to Johnson’s future or not, the Lions have added young weapons to the offense in recent years. They signed Golden Tate, 27, to a five-year deal in 2014 then drafted tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall that year.

The 5-foot-10 Tate was stellar his first year with 99 catches for 1,331 yards, but he took a step back this year with 90 catches for 813 yards and a career-low 9-yard average.

“I don’t think Golden Tate’s talented enough to be a true one, but if you have three twos on your team, it doesn’t matter,” Zierlein said.

“If you have two twos and a really good pass-catching tight end, I don’t think it matters.”

TJ Jones is the only receiver besides Tate signed for next season, so the Lions would have to target someone in free agency or the draft, though Zierlein said it likely wouldn’t be worthwhile to spend a first-round pick on a receiver.

Before the Lions played the Saints this year, Caldwell discussed how smaller wide receivers like New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks have managed to have success in recent seasons. The 5-foot-10 Cooks went 20th overall in 2014 and had 1,138 yards this season.

“I think guys that are small that have an extraordinary talent with leaping ability, hands, speed, they always find their niche in the league,” Caldwell said.

And the Lions hope to find out soon whether or not their 6-foot-5 option will keep making plays on the outside, or if they need to find a way to fill his massive void.