- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It is at once both a priority and somewhat of a luxury, an odd situation when you’re the Detroit Lions and you have the consensus top wide receiver in the game.
Calvin Johnson is always going to draw attention and, since 2009, has counted at least $8 million or more against the Lions' salary cap -- including $13.058 million in 2014. But one of the main lessons for the Lions in 2013 is how the team fared when Johnson was limited or not in the game.
The results were ugly, so while Detroit has a lot invested in one star at the position, the team also knows they need to put more resources there in order to have a successful offense.
The Lions’ offense struggled without Johnson at points in 2013, so as the team evaluates talent at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, receiver will be a position of interest to assist their star.
“It’s something obviously that we have to really take a real strong look at, obviously, because of the fact that he’s one that’s going to draw a little extra attention in terms of double coverage like he’s always done,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “And with that being the case, we have to find a way to make certain whoever is on the other side that may be getting singled in some situations can do some damage against the defenders.
“I think that’s extremely important, so I think that’s something that obviously we’ve taken a good hard look at and one way or another we’re going to come up with a guy that’s going to give us some balance in that area.”
Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew dismissed the suggestion that part of the search for a young receiver on the outside in this draft could be viewed as a potential replacement for Johnson in a few years.
The 28-year-old has put up three straight seasons of 1,400 yards or more. He routinely draws multiple defenders and potential scheme changes when opponents face them. But he has had knee issues the past two seasons and healthy knees are critical for wide receivers to keep their speed, agility and jumping ability -- and therefore, their success.
“We want quality across the board,” Mayhew said. “We want guys that, if, for whatever reason Calvin is getting doubled or he’s not playing in a particular game that he can go out and make plays by himself. That was one of our things last year, when Calvin was injured, we struggled offensively a lot of times to get off or other players to get off.
“We’re going to be looking for receivers who can win one-on-one battles, win one-on-one matchups and make plays down the field.”
Mayhew didn’t have a height-weight-speed metric for what the team would like in a receiver, either through free agency or the draft, but Caldwell has typically had only starting receivers over 6 feet during his time in Indianapolis and Baltimore. That goes for both on the outside and in the slot.
Mayhew’s focus is more on whether the receiver can get separation, get open and make tough catches when necessary. That, and being able to potentially deflect attention away from Johnson, are the most important qualities.
There is a reason a rookie might be a better fit here than a veteran, though, despite the typical inexperience that comes with anyone entering the NFL. Any rookie or younger player coming to the Lions has a built-in advantage of knowing he won’t be receiving the majority of the attention, kind of like what happened in Cincinnati in 2012 and 2013.
And some rookies notice the situation could be a beneficial one for whomever the Lions select.
“I would love to play with a guy like Calvin Johnson because you know he’s going to get all the attention,” said former UCLA receiver Shaq Evans, who talked with the Lions at the Senior Bowl. “It’s going to make you have to step up your game and that’s what you want to do.
“You want to have that role where you step up your game because you know they are going to double Calvin and you’re a guy that can step in for that No. 2 spot or No. 3 spot.”
After releasing Nate Burleson last week, the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers are the likely spots the team is looking to fill. Now, the Lions need to figure out who they want for those spots, either through a deep free-agent pool or a deep rookie class.
“There are a lot of different ways to go about it. One way to look at it is we have a big receiver in Calvin, let's get a smaller guy who can run routes and get open and slide into the slot on third downs,” Mayhew said. “Another way to look at is what Chicago did with two big guys.
“So it really can go either way. It's kind of who you can get.”