Stevie Johnson is not an elite fantasy receiver. He's simply an elite receiver. Just ask the best cover men in the game.
That's not to say his numbers are bad for weekend GMs: Johnson is the first receiver in Bills history to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons, let alone two. On Sunday he caught his 28th career touchdown in his 71st game—a far-from-flashy total that's due more than anything to the fact that his quarterbacks have been J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, E.J. Manuel and Thaddeus Lewis. Johnson is better known, though, for his wallet-lightening touchdown celebrations and a regrettable tweet in which he blamed the Almighty for letting him drop a game-winning touchdown against the Steelers in 2010. Behind the bravado stands one of only seven receivers in NFL history to have three seasons of 75 catches, 1,000 yards and five touchdowns before his 27th birthday.
But the stats are window dressing. As Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson—who has seen everything under the NFL sun 10,000 times—wrote, "Every NFL player reminds me of someone else. He doesn't remind me of anyone else."
Johnson's abstract style of route running looked foreign to Darrelle Revis during their three head-to-head games in 2011 and '12, when Revis was a Jet. In the first matchup Johnson caught three balls for 84 yards, more than any receiver had ever put up against Revis. The second game saw Johnson catch eight balls for 75 yards when covered by Revis. Their third matchup came in last year's opener, two weeks before Revis's season-ending knee injury, and was generally judged a 12-round decision for Revis.
By last December, when the 5--8 Bills hosted the 8--5 Seahawks, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman had staked his claim as Revis's successor as the league's best corner. Late in the first quarter of a game largely unviewed outside of King and Erie Counties, Johnson was isolated out left against Sherman. At the snap Johnson slipped a punch from the hyperphysical Sherman while counterpunching with his right hand. Duly separated from Sherman, he picked up 17 yards and a first down on a quick slant from Fitzpatrick. In the second quarter, with the Bills trailing 31--7 and in obvious pass mode, Johnson lined up in the left slot at the Seahawks' 20, showed Sherman an outside release, then leaped inside him and sprinted up the seam. Sherman was glued to him until Johnson faked a post with his head and shoulders while stabbing his right foot into the turf and turning into a post corner that left Sherman's dreadlocks wagging 10 yards in his wake. It was the kind of freewheeling, reaction-based route Johnson has become known for, and it was only the second score Sherman had allowed all season.
Though at 27 he is 10 months younger than Megatron, Stevie Johnson is now being phased into a new role as a slot receiver, a move mandated by the Bills' new 33-year-old offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett. But there's no reason to think Johnson can't thrive in the slot; he's a shifty receiver who always gets where he needs to be but never seems to get there the same way twice. But the shift may leave us with only the previous three seasons as testament to the possibilities that Johnson brought to the X position. His act is now a brilliant art-house film playing while The Era of the Ridiculous Wide Receiver, starring Calvin and Andre Johnson, costarring Larry Fitzgerald, is in the multiplexes. We'll also have the tattered freak flag that's still planted on Revis Island. And we have the hope that the legs of those two men will hold up until Dec. 8, when we'll see another rematch in Tampa.