He’s a perennial All Pro player -- like Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson -- who affects the way defenses play his team week-in and week-out.
But too many seasons of having to carry the load looks to be having an impact on Johnson. The wear and tear on his big frame has been extensive the last two season’s as he’s dealt with two separate knee issues, an ankle injury and a mangled finger that required offseason surgery.
Simply put, Johnson’s been beat up. He needs help and that needs to come in the form of at least one or two more receivers who can help carry the load.
“I think you always have to be aware of the wear and tear of this game on your players,” new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said Friday. “It’s something that, you know, I don’t want to call it a pitch count, but you’re always cognizant of how much are these guys running in practice, how many hits they are taking, who is coming across the middle to catch this pass that going to possibly get him hit.”
Johnson has been so instrumental to the game plan every week that sometimes those considerations didn’t seem as prevalent in the old regime. His practice time was limited, but Johnson had to play and had to produce. If the open area in the defense was over the middle, Johnson needed to be there.
How important was Johnson last year? In the two games he didn’t play the Lions scored a grand total of 22 combined points.
The Lions no doubt have receiver on their wish list this offseason. Tight end could be on the list too.
It seems help is on the way for Johnson, 28, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
Lombardi is taking over the Lions offense after spending the last seven years in New Orleans where he worked with tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s considered the best at his position in the NFL.
“I think they’re both exceptional players that force a defense to adjust the way that they play,” Lombardi said. “You know, a defense has always got to be aware, ‘Where’s Jimmy Graham?’ and they’ve always got to be aware of where Calvin Johnson is.
“It can really provide some challenges to us, challenges we like to have, meaning as you’re studying a defense, there’s always that question, ‘How is this going to be different because we have Calvin?’ You know, ‘How are they going to play Jimmy?’ was always a question that we had to ask and there wasn’t always evidence on film.
“So, a lot of times, you’d get into the game and have to watch and say, ‘Okay, I see what they’re doing.’ How does our game plan match up now? So, that can be a challenge, but they’re certainly challenges that we like to have.”
Challenges made easier if Johnson doesn’t have to continue to do all of the heavy lifting in the passing game.