Patriots fans were spoiled by Randy Moss.
When he was traded to New England before the 2007 season for a fourth-round pick, expectations in the region were forever altered. Corey Dillon and Rodney Harrison had already linked up with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to win Super Bowls late in their careers, but the Moss deal was different. At that point, even the too-good-to-be-true scenarios became possibilities.
At 30 years old, playing on a contract that was set to pay him $3 million with $1.75 million in incentives, Moss caught 23 touchdowns and helped his new team to an undefeated regular season. He ended up playing in 16 games and cracking 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons with the Patriots before being dealt to Tennessee in 2010.
Ever since, Moss has toyed with the imaginations of an entire region.
Whenever an aging but not-yet-worn-down star is rumored to be on the market, the Patriots are inevitably linked. Especially when said star has not yet tasted postseason success.
There have been times when that kind of pie-in-the-sky deal comes to fruition, as it did -- very quickly -- with Darrelle Revis before the 2014 season. Other times, like when there was smoke as it pertained to New England's interest in Larry Fitzgerald, nothing.
This week a different player is involved, but the speculation is rampant. Could Lions receiver Calvin Johnson somehow end up with the Patriots?
According to ESPN, the six-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro told those close to him that the 2015 season would be his last. At the urging of Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Johnson has taken more time to think about that decision and has not yet made his retirement official.
Some things to keep in mind as we consider Johnson's future and any potential fit with the Patriots . . .
HE MAY, UM, ACTUALLY RETIRE
Johnson is 30 years old and will turn 31 on Sept. 29. According to Spotrac.com, he has earned $113,816,086 over the course of his nine-year career since being drafted by the Lions with the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. He has played in no less than 13 games in every season, and he's dealt with finger, ankle and knee issues since 2013. A physical receiver who has consistently been the focal point of opposing defensive game plans, there is the distinct possibility that Johnson feels physically beat up and ready to walk away -- even if his numbers (88 catches, 1,214 yards, 9 touchdowns last season) might not suggest it. While nothing is official until Johnson has filed his retirement papers with the NFL, it appears as though he's not bluffing as a means to escape Detroit. If that's the case, he won't be playing anywhere in 2016, never mind New England.
PULLING A FAVRE?
If Johnson has a change of heart, and it turns out that he wants to return for another season, he'd very likely be earmarked by new Lions general manager Bob Quinn for a contract restructure. As talented as he is, Johnson is scheduled to count $24 million against Detroit's cap in 2016, which would hamstring any of the maneuverings Quinn had planned in his first season at the helm. To save, the Lions could extend and restructure Johnson's deal, or they could cut him outright and save just over $11 million on their cap. That would make him a free agent eligible to sign with any team, including the Patriots.
COVERING THEIR BASES
Even if Johnson chooses to retire, his contract would still hang over Detroit's collective head. Why? NFL contracts are not dissolved upon retirement, even after retirement papers are submitted to the NFL. Therefore, if Johnson ever chose to come out of retirement during the term of his deal, he'd play on that deal. The Lions could, however, release him from his contract after his retirement to avoid being slapped with an unmanageable cap number should Johnson suddenly feel the urge to return to football. At that point, he'd be a free agent and eligible to sign with any team, including the Patriots.
Having a relationship with Quinn, former Patriots director of pro scouting, could prove beneficial for Belichick and Nick Caserio if they were interested in acquiring Johnson. That is if, in fact, Johnson wants to play. And if, in fact, the Lions want to part ways. If Johnson decides not to retire, and if he can't agree to a restructure, the Lions could trade him instead of releasing him for nothing but cap space in return. As was the case in 2007 with Moss, who still had two years and $20 million remaining on his contract with the Raiders at the time of the trade, Johnson would likely have to be willing to take a significant pay cut before any team would be willing to deal for him.
FIT FOR NEW ENGLAND?
The Patriots could use an outside-the-numbers receiver to complement the pieces they have that do their best work in the middle of the field. Brandon LaFell was able to provide the team with that presence in 2014, but after returning from a foot injury in 2015, he struggled to regain that form. Those in the Patriots front office could very well believe they have a need, and if they do, Johnson seems like an ideal match. As of right now, should Johnson become a free agent, the Patriots don't have all that much cap space (about $5 million) to add him. But if they're able to clear space by releasing highly-paid veterans or re-working their deals, and if Johnson is willing to take something below market value in order to play for a Super Bowl contender, the two sides could make it work.
To recap, for the dreamers, Johnson could wind up in New England if he decides he wants to play in 2016, and...
* ...the Lions decide to release him to save cap space.
* ...the Lions decide to release him from his contract after he's retired.
* ...Johnson agrees to a pay cut that would facilitate a trade.
Given ESPN's reporting on Johnson's desire to retire, it seems as though he's just about ready to hang 'em up for good. But that won't keep Patriots fans from hoping otherwise.