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When Calvin Johnson finally spoke Wednesday, the first time since the wrecking ball smashed through the Detroit Lions' front office, he had a telling opportunity. With elements of the coaching staff already gone and the front office stripped bare, the franchise receiver was lobbed a question about whether he would be willing to suffer through another rebuild.
He could have grabbed his chance and made a strong commitment to the Lions' future. But in a moment that even Detroit fans likely understand, he alligator-armed it.
"We'll have to wait and see," Johnson said. "I don't think about what could happen."
He's alone in that prospect. A lot of people in the NFL are looking at Johnson and thinking about what could happen. Particularly some of those franchises that could use a 6-foot-5 nightmare matchup at wideout. That kind of player can be worth his (237 pound) weight in gold to a budding young quarterback. He can also be a vital piece to put a veteran quarterback back on the right track. And at 31 years old next season, Johnson has a few more prime years to do either.
The right answer: the Oakland Raiders.
Before we get to that, let's unpack this situation. First, with general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand gone, the Lions are heading toward a tear down. One that likely will retain only the youngest and most promising pieces, while leveraging some of the aging stars (like Johnson) for draft picks or other young players.
Johnson appears to be a luxury that falls into the awkward limbo of age, salary and retooling. At 31 next September and already suffering from wear and tear, history suggests Johnson likely has three or four top-shelf seasons left. Some will argue less, but given the state of the Lions and the special nature of the player, many evaluators will pin some of his lagging production on the factors around him.
Johnson has a monster salary-cap charge of $24 million next season. That's too much to dedicate to a player whose name isn't Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. He doesn't touch the ball enough to justify the money. And barring a 2,000-yard receiving season, the Lions can't force him the ball enough to make him worth the salary.
Johnson's agent did a good job of structuring the deal so that he'd have to be cut loose at 30, just in time for one last lucrative deal.
Here's what the money means: If the Lions cut him, even with some aspects of the contract accelerating, they'd immediately open $11 million in cap room for 2016, and $21 million in 2017 when his dead money would be completely off the books. If they were to find a team to acquire him via trade, that team would be on the hook for only Johnson's base salaries, which total $32.45 million over the next two seasons. He could also redo his deal after a trade.
Granted, that's still expensive for a wideout, but you can bet that if Johnson is cut loose, he's going to still be looking for what amounts to a four-year contract with at least $32 million guaranteed. And with the amount of cash that is going to be available next offseason, he will likely get it.
Johnson is an expensive but elite player with a sprained ankle, trapped inside a bad offense with an erratic quarterback. He has been sharing catches with another player (Golden Tate) who has a solid argument that he is worthy of being a No. 1 wideout. If you think he's on the fast track into decline, then you believe a franchise being a dumpster fire has no impact on a great player. Remember Randy Moss before he landed with the New England Patriots? He was trapped in a similar scenario.
Here's what others in the NFL say about Johnson when they see him on film.
"I've played him way too many times," Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's just so good at everything – running the routes, catching the ball, getting open, using his size, his speed, outjumping. When I was in Cincinnati we had three guys around him and he threw up a 50-yard ball and he went up and got it for a touchdown. I've been well aware of him for a long, long time. And I know people use these terms loosely as one of the greatest receivers, but he really is with the things that he can do and the way he can go get the football."
How about Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris?
"He's still Calvin," Harris said. "I haven't seen any drop-off. I haven't seen anything like that. He's double-teamed everywhere. That's something he has to work through. He's always going to get double-teamed. [Whatever receiver] is opposite that has to win."
Those are two guys who have faced Johnson this season. And they're not alone. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid gushed about him. Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards says Johnson still compares to Randy Moss. He still single-handedly takes the safety blitz off the table.
And that's why he'll be coveted if the Lions choose not to keep him. There will be plenty of buyers, too. If he could talk about Johnson, Cleveland Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, a former Lions assistant, would love to see him in a Browns uniform. Tennessee Titans wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson? If it wasn't tampering, he'd be overjoyed to have Johnson in the fold and teaching some of his younger wideouts the art of playing physically at the position. And there are more, but no situation makes more sense than the Raiders.
In almost every way, the Raiders are in the wheelhouse for Johnson. He should be on their roster already. But they made the mistake of opting for quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 pick in that year's draft. How often do you get a chance to rectify a franchise-crushing mistake?
Consider this: The Raiders' offense is blossoming under rookie No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper and quarterback Derek Carr. Cooper has been so special, he has essentially brought the career of possession wideout Michael Crabtree back to life. But Crabtree is on a one-year, $3.2 million deal and will be looking for a raise when he becomes a free agent this offseason. He's only two years younger than Johnson and light years behind him in talent. And Johnson causes more matchup problems in a month than Crabtree has in his entire career.
The Raiders are going to be in the market this offseason for another wideout. And Oakland's quarterbacks coach just so happens to be Todd Downing, an assistant who spent three years (2011-2013) as a quarterbacks coach for the Lions. The same three years that account for the best output in Calvin Johnson's career. That is serendipitous for the Raiders.
And the money? Well, Oakland's cap room next season is staggering. If the cap rises to the expected $155 million range next year, the Raiders will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million to $80 million to spend on free agents and extensions. Paying Johnson $15 million to $16 million a season to play on the other side of Cooper is a drop in the bucket. A drop gets you a second No. 1 receiver, and a guarantee that tight ends and running backs will rarely (if ever) have to worry about creeping safeties.
It also gives your crown jewel quarterback another monumental piece to work with in his formative years, and makes it far more difficult to double-team Cooper. And Johnson can also mentor a player who is very similar to him in his demeanor. Whether the Raiders traded for Johnson or signed him as a free agent, the upside is immense.
Johnson is not long for Detroit. He had his chance to throw in for the big rebuild that is coming, and he gently pulled back. And that is an opening for the Raiders. They have opportunity to take another much-needed leap forward. If this is a new era, they won't let that chance pass them again.
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