If there's one NFL receiver truly worthy of passing up Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald on the highest-paid list, it's Calvin "Megatron" Johnson of the Detroit Lions. And that has indeed happened. As first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Lions have ponied up in a major way for the continued services of their best offensive player: an eight-year, $132 million contract extension that includes $60 million guaranteed if he plays through the 2019 season. That passes Fitzgerald's $120 million deal, signed last year, by a fairly hefty margin.
"Calvin's one of those guys that, and we've said this about a few guys in our building now, that whatever you pay him is not enough," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said at the Wednesday press conference announcing the deal. "And he's truly a special player."
Amazingly, the deal also opens up a lot of salary cap space for the Lions. In the final year of his previous contract, Johnson was going to cost the Lions more than $22 million in cap room for the 2012 season; the new first-year salary structure will free up $9 million for the Lions. Recently, several Detroit stars -- quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Nate Burleson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- restructured their own contracts to get the Lions under the $120.6 million salary cap. Johnson's new deal actually provides the Lions with a bit of flexibility.
"I've heard a lot of players talk about this, whether it be a Peyton [Manning] or whoever, just guys that have played in the league a long time, Hall of Fame guys," Johnson said at the press conference. "The comfort level you receive being able to be in one place for a long time is unlike any other. One, having security, not having to worry about where am I going to be. And then two, having a good team, having a lot of guys locked up on this team that you've had success with and that you just continue to grow with."
In 2011, Johnson caught 96 passes for a league-leading 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns, earning his second Pro Bowl nomination and enjoying his inaugural First-Team All-Pro selection. In the Lions' first playoff game since 1999, a 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Johnson set an NFL record for a receiver in his first playoff game with 211 receiving yards. He also scored two touchdowns in that game. This despite the fact that Johnson was obviously the Saints' primary focus. Earlier in the season in a 31-17 loss to the Saints, Johnson wasn't just the Saints' primary focus -- he went through that game with a bull's-eye on his back. That opened up opportunities for other receivers, proving that even when Johnson doesn't get targeted, he's extremely valuable to the Lions' offense.
"Here's the deal," Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson recently said. "Calvin is just entering into the prime of his career. The things you saw Calvin do this year, the next five years, you're going to see even better things coming. You are going to see even more explosion out of this guy and it's going to be scary. I think this guy is rewriting the books."
Schwartz agreed at his season-ending press conference. "One thing we talk about all the time is Calvin affecting coverage. [Running back] Jahvid Best affects a lot of coverage also because he is a tough matchup for a lot of linebackers so teams that want to play man, 2-man, and give space inside, Jahvid is a guy that gives them a lot of problems. We see it with the Saints. The Saints with [running back Darren] Sproles gives you a lot of the same problems and as much as Calvin frees up coverage, we have other guys that do the same thing, including Jahvid. The more weapons, the better."
And now, the Lions have their most important weapon locked up for a good, long time.
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