What Calvin Johnson's Up-and-Down Season Means for the Lions

Calvin Johnson hasn't been a consistent threat this year. Are his best playing days in the past?

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson helped revolutionize football. At the very least, he was a harbinger of a new offensive era in the NFL.

The big-bodied (6'5", 236-pound) speedster (4.35-second 40-yard dash) is a physical specimen and foreshadowed the impact of similarly sized wideouts in the NFL.

Able to go past, through, over, or around defenders, Johnson has consistently been one of the best football players of any position since his breakout campaign as a sophomore in 2008.

Now 30 years old and seemingly unable to remain off the injury report, the man known as Megatron has taken a backseat to some of the more youthful receivers in the NFL in the "game's best" debate.

His season-long numbers -- 71 catches, 981 yards, and 7 touchdowns -- look fine through 13 games, but those surely don't tell the full story of his 2015 season.

Uneven Production

From Weeks 7 through 12 (Detroit's bye was in Week 9), Johnson caught at least 5 passes for 80 yards, but that's about all of the positive consistency you'll see from his raw stats.

Through 13 games, Johnson has topped 100 yards receiving just once (166 yards in Week 6). His seven touchdowns came via just five of his 13 games and were quite spread out: Week 2, Week 6, Week 7, three in Week 12, and one more in Week 13.

Unsurprisingly, his production via our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, are just about as inconsistent.

NEP, if you're new around these parts, is how we quantify a player's performance on the football field. It's based on the premise that every football situation -- a given play based on a given down and distance, field location, score, etc. -- has an expected outcome, based on historical performance. If you catch a 10-yard pass on 3rd-and-8, you're helping your team score. If that same 10-yard pass comes on 3rd-and-18 and your team punts, you haven't made the same impact. Over a full season, these add up, and provide a telling story of how a player has performed.

A synopsis for Calvin's tale: a consistently great receiver has been inconsistent.

WeekRecRec NEPTarTar NEPRec NEP/TCatch%

Yes, he's had a positive impact on every game but one, but that's not really uncommon for a receiver, as passing is an efficient way to move the ball. What's perhaps most telling is his Reception NEP per target, which helps to measure efficiency.

Elite receivers in terms of efficiency can hover around 0.85 and up toward a full point on a per-target basis over a full season. Average (or high-volume) receivers tend to live below that, from about 0.65 and up. Then below that, you have your Cecil Shorts and Andre Johnson guys.

So, unscientifically and overlooking the small samples in each game, Johnson's game log -- from an efficiency standpoint -- could read: good, bad, average, awful, elite, elite, elite, below average, average, elite, elite, below average, bad.

Cumulative Marks

But he hasn't been bad by any means. Heading into Week 14, Megatron ranked 11th among all receivers with a Reception NEP of 85.76 on 123 targets.

Among high-volume guys (let's say the 26 receivers with at least 90 targets), he ranked 10th in Reception NEP per target (0.70).

His metrics have been good even with the lack of 100-yard games and consistent end zone visits.

Yes, his Catch Rate (57.72 percent) was just 18th in that group, but he has only 4 drops (for an elite drop rate of 3.3 percent). His Reception Success Rate -- the percentage of receptions that actually added to Detroit's NEP -- of 92.96 percent ranked 6th.

So, his production has been volatile from a weekly perspective, but his catches are still doing damage at a good clip. There isn't much garbage time production in his numbers.

And last year, during his third-worst season by Reception NEP (during which he was still producing at an awesome level), Johnson posted the third-best Reception Success Rate (98.59 percent) among the 546 seasons by a wide receiver with at least 100 targets since 2000.

Third out of 546.

Only Vincent Jackson in 2012 (72 successful catches on 72 catches) and Albert Connell (39 for 39) had a higher rate of receptions add to NEP than Calvin. And, yeah, 39 catches on 102 targets gave Connell a Catch Rate (38.24 percent) that was the worst of the entire group.

Albert Connell stats aside, Calvin Johnson is still big doing things in the NFL, even if his weekly game log looks troubling.

Going Forward

Johnson's biggest issue -- from a raw stats standpoint -- is consistency. Another knock, of course, is the lack of single-game upside -- aside from his one 100-yard game and one multi-score game.

However, based on a still-great Reception Success Rate, a top-10 per-target efficiency, and a small number of drops, it's hard to think Calvin is the issue.

For what it's worth, Matthew Stafford's Passing NEP of 23.79 ranked 26th among all quarterbacks in the NFL entering Week 15. Among 33 passers with at least 200 drop backs, he ranked 27th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.05).

His Passing Success Rate (49.05 percent) is ninth in that group of 33 passers, and it's the second-best mark of his career (it was 51.65 percent in his career year in 2011).

This combination suggests a lack of big-play upside.

Wasted chances -- at least toward Calvin -- are a big culprit, as Johnson's Reception NEP per target (0.70) would be his third-worst ever. We know he's not dropping passes, and we know that when he does catch it, he's moving the NEP arrow in a positive direction at a high rate.

No matter what his game log shows or what the reason is for his lack of big games, Johnson has still been, by the metrics, one of the most effective receivers in the NFL.