Megatron’s Mega Millions

With the regular season in the books, it’s time to review said books and put together the performance and salary stats of all NFL players. Soon, we’ll have a much better idea of which general managers put forward the best contracts in football this season. So far I’m only through the “skill” position players. And today I wanted to say a few words about Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

“Megatron” is arguably the best wide receiver/non-quarterback/player in the entire league, depending whom you talk to. He is definitively the best paid wide receiver/non-quarterback, and the seventh highest paid player overall.  Before this season, the 28-year-old Johnson signed a seven-year contract worth $113.45 million, averaging $16.207 million a year, including a $16 million signing bonus and $48.75 million guaranteed. (The Lions did not sit him down in a meaningless Week 17 game for no reason; they sat him down for 48.75 million reasons.) Only quarterbacks Joe Flacco ($20.1 million), Drew Brees ($20m), Peyton Manning ($19.2m), Matt Ryan ($18.958m), Aaron Rodgers ($18.679m) and Tony Romo ($17.071m) average more per year than Johnson, per Is he worth it?

No. NO. And it isn’t close. In terms of what he brings to the field, Johnson is not worth that much money. Is there a chance he still could be, perhaps in terms of whom he brings, to Ford Field, and how many of those fans purchase Calvin Johnson jerseys from NFL Shop or Detroit Lions’ stores? Certainly, there’s enormous value there, but probably not enough to offset how much Johnson is overpaid. Other popular wide receivers, such as Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, DeSean Jackson, etc, see their pay match their performance much more closely than Megatron’s. If one assumes that the NFL pays each player their complete worth (or close to it), that would imply that Calvin Johnson’s popularity (including other non-performance measures) is worth $13 million more than Brandon Marshall’s, who plays in a bigger market, and is the most exciting wide receiver his team has ever had in its 95 year history. Yeah right.

It isn’t that Megatron isn’t good. He really, really is. (Duh.) Pro Football Focus graded him out at +22.5 on the season, good for fourth best in the league, and he missed two games. It’s that he is paid so, so much, while other receivers who are nearly as good as Johnson make much, much less. Brandon Marshall, PFF’s top graded wide receiver this season (+37.8), averages “only” $8.956 million. Johnson makes nearly twice as much! PFF’s top ten wide receivers all make millions, and they all make millions less than Johnson. None of the others make more than $10 million a year.

One could make the case that Johnson has been held back by others, his teammates on the Lions, maybe quarterback Matthew Stafford, or recently fired head coach Jim Schwartz, etc. Perhaps, were Johnson on the Denver Broncos, his play would merit his pay. That’s quite possible. But the Lions (and specifically general manager Martin Mayhew) knew their situation when they gave Johnson that contract. After four years of evaluating Stafford and Johnson together, the Lions organization ought to know their ceiling, their likely performance, and how much it’s worth on the open market. Given the mega millions Megatron rakes in, it seems that they didn’t.

The bottom line: you give anyone, especially a non-quarterback, $16 million a year in this league, and he will likely have seasons that don’t deserve it. $16 million per season is A LOT, even in the NFL. Calvin Johnson is an incredible talent. But by overpaying him millions of dollars each year, the Lions have made it harder to find other incredible talents. And with only one winning season, and one playoff appearance since mighty Megatron joined the team, it’s clear: he can’t do it all by himself.