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Calvin Johnson: I wanted to play elsewhere, Lions wouldn’t let me

Mike Florio and Big Cat hand out grades for some of the NFL teams that made the biggest moves in the offseason, including the 49ers, Titans and Patriots.

The relationship between the Lions and Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson continues to be strained, at best. On Friday, Johnson disclosed another reason for his hard feelings.

Johnson claims that he wanted to finish his career with another team, but that the Lions wouldn’t let him leave.

“We asked would they release me or let me go to another team,” Johnson recently told “They wouldn’t.”

Asked whether he wanted to play for the Raiders, Johnson said he would have gone anywhere. He also recognizes that quarterback Matthew Stafford wanted out, and that he got his wish.

“You know what, it sucked that they didn’t let me go, but they let Matthew go, but hey, you know, it is what it is,” Johnson said.

Of course, the Lions got two first-round picks and a third-round pick plus quarterback Jared Goff (and his bloated contract) for Stafford. It’s unclear what the Lions would have gotten for Johnson, or whether they even listened to offers.

Johnson’s disclosure makes the way his career ended even more confusing. Five years ago, we raised the question of whether Johnson wanted to be cut by the Lions. That would have extinguished any obligation to repay bonus money, and it would have allowed Johnson to play for any other team at any other time.

If he hadn’t retired when he did, the Lions would have had to figure out how to deal with a $24 million cap number for Johnson in 2016. Maybe they would have cut him. At a minimum, Johnson’s cap number gave him leverage that should have been used by his agents to get the Lions to agree not to ask him to return a portion of the bonus money, or to secure an unconditional release if he did. Instead, he had to pay back some money, the Lions avoided a $24 million cap charge, and they were able to squat on his rights indefinitely.

A year later, there was speculation that Johnson could return to the NFL, with a trade of his rights to a new team. If he wanted to play for someone else in 2017, he simply needed to pull a Brett Favre and show up. Instantly, Johnson’s $16 million salary would have landed back on the books. The Lions would have had to cut him or trade him, promptly.

It’s confusing, to say the least. If Johnson had played hardball, he could have gotten to keep his money or he could have obtained the ability to sign with a team or maybe both.

Perhaps Johnson simply didn’t want a full-blown confrontation with the Lions. Instead, Johnson and the Lions are engaged in a cold war that has lasted five years and counting. Although the Lions would like to bury the hatchet, Johnson said that the relationship remains fractured.

“I’m not back in the family with Lions or anything like that,” Johnson. “It would be nice to if they try to resolve things, but that’s neither here nor there.”

Johnson has previously given the Lions the blueprint for rebuilding the bridge: Give him back the money that they made him repay.

Five years ago, Johnson received bad advice (or he got good advice and ignored it), and the Lions took full advantage of the situation. If they want to make things right with Johnson, they need to just give him a no-show job that pays out over time the amount they made him pay back.