By Michael Downes
With the Hall of Fame ceremony behind us, it’s time to look ahead at who’s next. For the Detroit Lions, there’s really only one option: former wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson retired at the end of the 2015 season, making him eligible for enshrinement in 2021. At the time of his retirement, Lions fans felt that he was a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the dust has settled, Johnson may struggle to even be elected in at all.
Johnson has all the accolades, eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, one second-team All-Pro nod, led the league in receiving twice, touchdowns once and set the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. However, Johnson pulled a Barry Sanders and retired early. His stats are impressive, but since he cut his tenure short, he may fall into the category of “very good” and not “Hall of Fame” worthy.
When Johnson was playing he was no doubt one of the best in the league, but his all-time rankings seem to fall a little flat. He’s top 50 in every receiving stat, which is great, but there are only 25 modern era (after 1932) receivers currently in the Hall of Fame. With the league becoming more pass-heavy, there are a handful of players Johnson played against that have better career stats.
His 731 receptions is the 43rd most by a player, putting him behind Santana Moss, Andre Rison and Donald Driver. Johnson falls short of the 750 reception mark, which seems to be the unwritten requirement to be elected. No player whose career started after 1980 has made in into The Hall with less than 750 receptions. Johnson has a realistic chance to fall down to 44th all-time by the end of the 2017 season. Antonio Brown is sitting on 632 receptions. Over the past four seasons Brown has averaged 120 receptions a year. If he can keep that up, Johnson will drop down to 44th. By the time Johnson is officially put on the ballot, who knows how far he will fall.
Despite having a “low” number of receptions, Johnson was able to rack up the 29th most receiving yards with 11,619 and the 22nd most receiving touchdowns, 83. There are currently four active tight ends/receivers, Jason Witten (11,888), Brandon Marshall (12,061), Anquan Boldin (13,799) and Larry Fitzgerald (14,389), who have more yards than Johnson. Much like the receptions situation, Johnson could see his touchdown ranking go down a few spots in the near future. Both Boldin and Marshall are sitting on 82 touchdowns.
Putting up over 11,000 yards in 135 games, 86.1 yards per game, with 83 trips to the endzone is flat out ridiculous, but the fact that he only played in 135 games is going to hamper him.
Longevity plays a big part in making the Hall of Fame. If Johnson were to be inducted today, he’d be ranked 190th in games played among the 266 players in the The Hall. Of the 76 players with less games, only eight played after 1980 and just two were in the NFL after 1987. Players like Fitzgerald and Steve Smith Sr. were in the league playing at a high level before Johnson got drafted and were/are still playing at the same level since he left. Johnson was great, he was arguably the best receiver in football for three or four seasons, but it’s hard to argue he’s the best of his era when players have played at the same level for a longer period of time.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for Johnson. At this point, first-ballot Hall of Famer is almost impossible. Of the 25 modern era receivers in The Hall, only five were first-ballot. With Terrell Owens, who is top 10 in every receiver stat, getting stiffed his first two years of eligibility, Johnson shouldn’t get the first year nod.
As for being inducted at all, it’s not a surefire thing. Johnson’s career might not age well. With an influx of talent at the receiver position, players like Brown, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas might tarnish Johnson’s legacy.
Will Johnson end up in the Hall of Fame? Most likely. He was a polarizing athlete that the media loved, but he is going to have to wait longer than people think. He’s built quite the resume; his numbers are good, but not outstanding. He’s got a good list of accolades and a few NFL records, but it might not be enough. Johnson flirts with the line between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of very good. Ultimately, I think he will end up sporting the gold jacket, but it’s far from a guarantee.