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How do you replace a generational talent? The 2016 Detroit Lions will have to find out..

It’s never easy when legends leave the game of football. A select few teams may ride out a couple more successful seasons on the tails of the greatness that was before them… but greatness is not something that comes easy in Detroit. A city marred with the judgements of America, has battled equally as hard for success on Ford Field.

This is not to say the Lions haven’t had success in recent seasons. They’re only a couple years removed from a pass interference call that would have sent the (11-5) squad deep into the playoffs. Ending one of only two winning seasons in the playoffs since 1997. In fact the combined 9 winning seasons that resulted in playoff births since 1983, either came from a team led by Barry Sanders(7) or Calvin Johnson(2). One of which is in the Hall of Fame and one who is a mere 4 years away from a gold jacket of his own.

Now there are lots of parallels between the two star players.. both were top 3 picks in the draft by Detroit, both were generational talents, and both Sanders and Johnson retired suddenly at the age of 30. The most recent of the two being Calvin Johnson. Amid rumours of him not returning to the NFL after the 2015 season, those suspicions were confirmed by statement on March. 8th.

Since Johnson was drafted by the organization in 2007, the offense had a beacon of hope.. which was mirrored by immediate production. The addition of Johnson made Jon Kitna a 4000 yard passer, and the monstrous receiver may have been the only bright spot in the first winless season by an NFL team in 30 years. His speed and most importantly his size and catching radius gave him the Decipticon-ian nickname of Megatron (penned by all-time Lions great, Roy Williams). Over the next 8 seasons Calvin would hit his prime with quarterback Matthew Stafford, and produce a 3 year stretch of production never seen before at any football level. He would break all-time records, grace a Madden cover, attend 6 Pro Bowls, and now retire.

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Is it Detroit? Was it the wear and tear of NFL life? Fans will be left asking the same questions they do about Barry Sanders. One question most fans will still be left asking is… Now what?

The Lions wisely passed on drafting a receiver to fill Johnson’s shoes, instead signing Marvin Jones via free agency and likely relying heavily on Golden Tate. Detroit also boasts the most underperforming duo of tight ends in the league, in former first rounders Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron. Pettigrew is almost entirely an inside blocker now, leaving Ebron to hopefully blossom as a pass catcher this season.

What’s likely to be coach Caldwell and the Lions stance, is they will try to run the ball on teams and play good defense. Rebuilding the offensive line the way they have is a good first step for that, acquiring a running back who could could actually carry the load is the next step. The Lions do in fact have a strong pass rush, and have pieces on the back end on defense.. but are they good enough to stop Aaron Rodgers? Or even Jay Cutler?.. Time will tell.

When Barry Sanders retired from the Lions in 1998, the team was able to keep it together and make the playoffs the following year and narrowly miss with a (9-7) record the year after that. That could very well be the case here.. the team has some pieces, and performed well after a tough start in 2015.. but how long does Matthew Stafford have? Can they run the football? and most importantly can they make it out of the cutthroat NFC North?.

There is no doubting that Calvin Johnson was a generational talent, and it’s tough to watch another HOF player leave the city of Detroit early in their career. Lions fans had to wait less then 10 years after Barry left to get another star player, perhaps they won’t have to wait as long for greatness to come around again… but greatness is not something that comes easy in Detroit.