Why Calvin Johnson Will Be Fantasy Football's Top Receiver in 2015

Megatron's 2014 has drafters scared that his best days are behind him. Here's why that might be premature thinking.

Last year was easily  Calvin Johnson’s statistical worst since his third year in the league. Playing with a bum ankle all season, Johnson still managed to put up WR15 numbers in 11 games (no, I’m not counting the two he played as a decoy and received three total targets). But the performance he delivered wasn’t what fantasy drafters were used to seeing from the man they call Megatron.

As a result, fantasy drafters have reduced his average draft position (ADP) from the fifth overall player in 2014, to the sixth overall receiver in 2015.

While some may argue that Johnson’s 2014 may be the new normal, I think this mini-fire sale is a case of recency bias. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe Megatron can reclaim his title as the number-one fantasy receiver come the end of the season.

Megatron’s Career

Anyone with a pair of eyes can tell you Johnson is stupid good at football. But with our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, we can gauge just how productive he’s been throughout his career.

NEP serves to quantify a player’s performance above expectation by factoring in down-and-distance data, among other football variables, to determine the number of expected points he has added to his team’s total score. Check out our  glossary to learn more about NEP.

So just how good has Johnson been in his career? Outrageously good.

Season Reception NEP Reception NEP per Target Fantasy Points Per Game Rank
2007 63.10 0.66 37
2008 109.34 0.72 5
2009 80.59 0.59 16
2010 118.69 0.87 6
2011 142.07 0.90 1
2012 162.56 0.80 1
2013 143.56 0.92 2
2014 105.04 0.82 6

In terms of raw production, Johnson has racked up three of the 15 most productive seasons on record since 2000 in terms of Reception NEP.

There are only three other receivers with two seasons included in this group. Who are they? Oh, just certain future Hall-of-Famers Randy MossMarvin Harrison, and Terrell Owens. Yeah, that's incredibly good company.

Moreover, both Moss and Harrison each achieved one of their respective seasons on this list at age 30. Owens actually achieved one of his at age 34!

With his targets, Megatron has been consistently efficient, too. The league average for all receivers in Reception NEP per target has held steady at 0.66 for three straight seasons. Megatron has exceeded 0.80 Reception NEP per target for five straight seasons, including in 2014.

The next best fantasy WR1 in terms of consistent efficiency in terms of NEP?  Jordy Nelson, who recorded four straight seasons above 0.90 Reception NEP per target, although he only received over 100 targets the last two seasons. And as we all know by now, Nelson’s out for the year with an ACL tear.

The point is, context matters, folks. Megatron’s (relatively) poor performance last season wasn’t a result of father time crushing his dreams. He was basically playing injured the entire 2014 season save for the first three games, and all indications coming out of camp are that Johnson is healthy and ready to go.

2015 Competition

How did his stats compare to some of the top-ranked fantasy receivers entering the season?

Receiver Team Target Share Team Pass:Run Ratio Fantasy Points per Game (Standard) Reception NEP per target
Demaryius Thomas 30.82% 1.41:1 14.24 0.76
Calvin Johnson 29.97% 1.64:1 13.98 0.82
Antonio Brown 29.93% 1.53:1 15.48 0.84
Dez Bryant 29.42% 1.00:1 14.25 0.94
Odell Beckham 28.57% 1.42:1 16.88 0.91
Julio Jones 27.89% 1.78:1 13.02 0.88

Even while injured last season, Johnson accumulated 13.98 fantasy points per game in standard leagues when you remove the two games in which he played as a decoy and the three games he didn’t play.

While this was only fifth best among the six receivers generally considered in the number one receiver discussion for 2015, Megatron was simply not himself last year. And as I mentioned, he was still efficient when targeted last season. When he did catch the ball, he was money. His Reception Success Rate, the percentage of his receptions that added to Detroit's NEP, of 98.59% was tops among 40 receivers with at least 100 targets.  Vincent Jackson's 92.86% was a distant second.

Imagine what he could’ve done were he not hurt.

Still, even when injured, it’s clear that  Matt Stafford views Johnson as his crutch. Despite health concerns, Johnson still managed to receive 29.97% of the team’s target share. This target share was second most among his primary WR1 competition. It's not unreasonable to expect Johnson’s total team target share to rise even higher now that he’s fully healthy.

Another factor working in Johnson’s favor is that the Lions’ pass-to-run ratio was second highest among the teams represented by one of the six receivers above.

And while the Lions have stated that the team will run the ball more this season, which could potentially cap Johnson’s upside, there are question marks surrounding all of his primary competition for fantasy's top dog at the receiver position.

The Broncos and Falcons also insist they’re going to run the ball more which could affect the number of targets  Demaryius Thomas and Julio Jones get.

Dez Bryant’s Cowboys registered the third lowest pass-to-run ratio in 2014. Even though their star running back DeMarco Murray left in free agency, we shouldn’t expect the Cowboys to revert back to their pre-2014 gunslinging ways now that they’ve established a more stable team identity.

Odell Beckham had a ridiculous 12 game stretch in 2014, but it’d be foolish not to expect some regression, particularly with Victor Cruz coming back on the scene.

And  Antonio Brown could be due for regression as well. He scored 13 touchdowns in 2014, five more than his previous career high. The emergence of Martavis Bryant for the Steelers could siphon some targets away as well, albeit slightly. 

King of the Wide Receiver Mountain

It’s not exactly bold to say Calvin Johnson will be the number one wide receiver in 2015. But it is becoming pretty rare to think that way given his performance last season.

But looking at the total team target share he shouldered in 2014, and the efficiency he achieved even while he was hurt, it’s clear that Megatron still has what it takes to bring the fantasy receiver crown back to Detroit.

As such,  utilize the small discount you’re getting in his ADP to grab Johnson wherever you can. There’s a good chance he could be king of the receiver mountain once again in 2015.