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Five questions facing Lions after Johnson’s retirement

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

How will the Lions replace Calvin Johnson?

The obvious answer is they don’t. There just isn’t a receiver available that’s is guaranteed to produce 1,000-plus yards each year.

Really, the best way for the Lions to overcome the loss of Johnson is for tight end Eric Ebron to make good on his potential. During free agency or the draft, the Lions won’t find anyone who has the upside of Ebron in the passing game.

Of course, Ebron didn’t do enough his first two seasons to show he could be relied upon to be a top-tier threat, so the other option is for the Lions to put resources into the running game. Whether that’s finding a better running back or run-centric linemen, a strong running game would help alleviate the loss of Johnson.

Still, there are more questions the Lions must address than just replacing Johnson.

Who’s the No. 1 receiver?

He might not look like a traditional No. 1 receiver, but Golden Tate served in that role with the Seahawks and when Johnson missed three games in 2014 (Tate averaged eight catches for 116.3 yards). He’s also better than any of the receivers who helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl.

Tate is on a reasonable contract that will keep him in Detroit the next three seasons, which buys the Lions time to find their next true No. 1.

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How does this affect Matthew Stafford?

In theory, it shouldn’t. The Lions are paying Stafford a lot of money to lead the offense, and plenty of quarterbacks have had more success without a weapon like Johnson. It’s time to see what Stafford can do.

Fortunately, the Lions saw Stafford can excel without Johnson as they went 3-0 in games he missed in 2014. With an entire offseason to prepare for life without Johnson, Stafford and the coaches should have time to develop their best plan.

But without Johnson, the pressure is on Stafford to be more accurate because the other receivers won’t have the same catch radius Johnson did. Stafford completed a career-high 67.2 percent of his passes last year.

How much impact did Johnson still have in games?

It’s hard to say based on 2015.

Last season, some teams had success using primarily single coverage on Johnson, which is a major reason the offense struggled the first half. There were games in the second half where teams often double-teamed Johnson, but the offense was still productive.

Ultimately, Johnson still had a major impact, but it wasn’t as big. That might be partly due to the offense limiting deep passes, which is what made Johnson so dangerous. Of course, maybe there’s a reason the coaches didn’t want to go deep.

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How will the Lions fare without him?

If fans can take any solace in Johnson’s announcement, it should come from the lack of team success during his career.

One receiver doesn’t make a team a contender, and though he had so much individual success, the Lions never won a postseason game during his career.

In the short term, the Lions will miss Johnson because they’ll need to make some major adjustments, and Johnson’s $13 million in dead money limits how much they can improve. In the long term, the Lions could have more success if they use the resources once earmarked for Johnson on defense or the running game.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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