- Stephen Brashear/Getty
Though the 0-4 Detroit Lions have plenty of issues, their lack of explosiveness on offense has been one of the main problems.
Through four weeks, the Lions rank 23rd on offense and 16th in passing offense, according to Football Outsiders.
While the latter number makes them league-average, that’s a shortcoming for a team with weapons like Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Matthew Stafford.
Johnson, in particular, no longer looks like the most dominant receiver in the NFL. Three years after setting an NFL receiving record with over 1,900 yards, Johnson is regressing, thanks in part to age and a history of knee and ankle problems.
While Johnson is far from a scrub – as ProFootball Talk’s Mike Florio notes, Johnson is still on pace for over 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards – there are legitimate signs Johnson is in decline.
In four games this season, Johnson has 27 catches, but for just 265 yards (and one touchdown). As Justin Rogers of MLive points out, Johnson’s passes are far shorter than they used to be, and he’s rarely been used as a deep target. Johnson’s yards per catch have fallen dramatically, from 17.8 in 2013, to 15.2 to in 2014, to 9.4 this year.
This year, Johnson has only caught four passes for 11 yards or more, while 14 have been from 0 to 10 yards.
Given Johnson’s steady decline (his receiving yards have dropped four years in a row now), his contract situation is close to becoming a nightmare for the Lions, and it could become one for him, too.
In 2013, the Lions gave Johnson a seven-year, $113 million deal. While pricey, that kind of money can be justified for the game’s top receiver. Three years later, when it’s fair to wonder if he’s a top-10 receiver, Johnson’ impact on the Lions’ salary cap is about to skyrocket.
Next season, Johnson’s cap figure will be a whopping $24 million – higher than any player in the NFL this season – and it looks bad for both the Lions and for Johnson.
The Lions could cut him after the season; however, Johnson would still count as $12.4 million in dead cap space (amount of space a player counts against the salary cap even though they are not on the team) next year. While that would be better for the Lions’ cap than the alternative, that is a big chunk for a player not on the team, and it would mean cutting a player who still clearly has a lot left in the tank, even if he’s no longer elite.
Things really get hairy for Johnson in 2017, when his cap hit is over $21 million if he is still on the team, but his dead cap number is just $4.9 million. If Johnson’s production continues to dwindle, the Lions could possibly cut him and take a more reasonable $4.9 million hit on the salary cap instead.
More likely, however, Johnson and the Lions will restructure his deal. Again, while he’s no longer the receiver he was in his “Megatron” days, he still clearly has value.
Chances are, things between the Lions and Johnson are good enough where they wouldn’t want to cut him and force him to miss out on a lot of remaining money. However, for Johnson, there is seemingly a lot of pressure to stay healthy and productive to put the idea of being cut completely out of the picture.