Pride of Detroit wrote this week that Calvin Johnson is on pace to come within 20 yards of breaking the all-time single season receiving yardage record this year, which surprised me because it seemed like until a couple weeks ago he was having a somewhat down season compared with the number he put up in 2011.

As it turns out, Johnson is on pace for an 1828 yard season – just off the pace of Jerry Rice, who had 1848 in 1995. He’s just not getting in the end zone as much – he’s been tackled at the one yard line a ridiculous number of times – but he’s still having another monster year.

After seemingly taking a couple seasons to get acclimated to the NFL game after spending his college days at the wishbone stalwart Georgia Tech, Megatron has been on fire the last couple seasons. In 2011, he led the league in receiving yards with 1681, was second in touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski with 16 (Gronk had 17) and had 96 catches.

His stalwart numbers through the first six years of his career made me wonder how he stacked up with a couple of the league’s all-time greats. And yes, it appears as though these last couple amazingly prolific seasons have put Johnson right in the mix with the likes of Randy Moss and Jerry Rice, whose careers were compared on this site previously.

Barring injury, Johnson will eclipse Rice’s reception total for their first six years. Rice had 446. Johnson has 439 right now with five games left in the regular season for Detroit. He’ll likely fall just short of Rice in yardage, though he’s got a shot to catch him (7,129 with five games left to Rice’s 7,866). Rice’s 79 touchdowns through a half-dozen years has both Moss (77) and Megatron (53).

Stats first six seasons Catches Yards TDs
Randy Moss 525 8375 77
Jerry Rice 446 7866 79
Calvin Johnson * 439 7129 53

*Still finishing sixth season

So, where will Megatron end up? It largely depends on how he performs over the second half of his career. As noted in the other post, Moss was on pace to obliterate many of Rice’s all-time records, but after six years, the trajectory of his career decreased dramatically. As shown in the chart below, in the last nine seasons (one of which he spent retired), Moss has not doubled his catch or yardage totals from his first six years and he has just one more touchdown during that time than he had in his first half-dozen seasons.

Rice, on the other hand, took his game to yet another level. He stayed in the league for a total of 20 seasons and obliterated the pace he established for himself during his first six seasons, breaking the 1000-yard mark 14 times (including 11 seasons straight – a string snapped only with a torn ACL in week two of the 1997 season) and scoring an amazing 197 touchdowns through the air.

After season six Catches Yards TDs Total seasons
Moss * 445 6749 78 14
Rice 1103 15029 118 20

*Spent 2011 retired, but came back and now is still (kind of) active

Longevity is an impossible thing to project at this stage of a player’s career, but my guess is that the next six or more years of Johnson’s career will more closely mirror Rice’s for a couple reasons. First, there never have been any accusations against Megatron that he “takes plays off” or “plays when he wants to play.” He might drop the occasional pass but his effort has not been publicly questioned.

Second, he’s got a body type and plays a game that is built for a more diverse route tree. Moss was tall and I wouldn’t question his toughness, but he definitely was more of a fly pattern/catch the ball on the sidelines type of guy; he wasn’t someone you often saw catching slants over the middle. At 6’5” and 230-something pounds, Johnson is built to a level where he could give himself a shot.

Third, the last couple seasons would indicate that a light bulb has gone on for Johnson. Through his first four seasons you could tell he was a physical specimen with great athletic abilities, but he was not the feared weapon he has become. The last two or three seasons, he’s taken his game up a notch and become if not the best receiver in the game, one of the top two or three. Megatron catches everything in sight, even in the middle of double teams and triple teams and rolled safety coverages and whatever else gets thrown at him.

At the end of the day, a lot of it will come down to offseason conditioning. Rice was known for working as hard if not harder during the offseason as he did during the regular season. He was driven. I know little to nothing about Johnson’s offseason training regimen, but whatever it is he is doing seems to be working, at least for now.

There are also extraneous factors that will affect these numbers going forward, such as quarterback play. Johnson’s improvement has coincided with the addition and growth of Matthew Stafford. Rice spent the bulk of his days playing with Joe Montana and Steve Young at quarterback and John Taylor lining up at wide receiver on the other side of the field. Randy Moss had Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper winging the ball deep to him for many of his early years and Tom Brady during his time in New England. When he went to Oakland, the signal calling was of significantly lower quality.

So, will Megatron catch any or all of Rice’s records? Too hard to say at this point. But the direction his career is heading gives him as good a shot as any of the great receivers playing today. And his 2011 and 2012 seasons indicate he’s working on taking his game to that level.