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Examining Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking pace

Passing records are being broken left and right in what has been the most pass-happy era in NFL history, so you can probably expect some receiving records to fall as well.

That nearly happened Sunday in Detroit, with Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson falling just seven yards short of the all-time single-game receiving yards record. 

But Johnson has a lot of time to put up another 300-plus-yard effort, maybe even getting the best of Flipper Anderson. He already owns the single-season record for receiving yardage, and now you have to wonder if he could become the all-time leader in that category. 

Jerry Rice seems so untouchable, but Johnson is such a stud and playing on such a ridiculous team in such a ridiculous era that he might retire with the greatest receiving numbers in NFL history. Let's break it down:

Johnson is currently averaging 87.4 yards per game, which is the highest mark in NFL history. In fact, it's almost six full yards more than second-place Andre Johnson and is 12 yards more than Rice averaged. But Rice played 303 games over a 20-year span. Johnson might be a beast, but he still gets banged up. We'll see if he has the durability to play long enough to break Rice's record here.

Rice finished with 22,895 yards. Johnson currently has 8,657. 

Johnson has played 99 games. When Rice was at the exact same point of his career, he had 8,488 yards. That puts Johnson slightly ahead of Rice's pace, 

But at the 99-game mark, Rice was just two weeks beyond his 29th birthday. Johnson turned 28 just a month ago. That means he has pretty much an entire year to keep gaining on Rice, at least from an age perspective. 

Again, that doesn't mean that Johnson can keep consistently putting up 1,000-yard seasons beyond his 36th birthday, as Rice did. Rice somehow had six 800-plus-yard seasons after turning 36. He had 5,977 yards in total beyond that milestone, which is more than twice the amount of any other receiver in NFL history. 

The best non-Rice modern-day retired comparisons to Johnson we have are Terrell Owens, Tim Brown, Jimmy Smith, Irving Fryar, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Andre Reed, Art Monk, Randy Moss and Charlie Joiner. After turning 36, those 10 receivers averaged 964 yards. Only Joiner (2,734) had more than 1,700. 

So Johnson will probably want to be within 3,000 yards by his 36th birthday in order to break the record. That gives him seven and a half seasons (or approximately 123 games if he stays healthy) to get from 8,657 to 19,895. Based on the action he missed during his first six years, he should be expected to miss at least six games due to injury.

Assuming he stays relatively healthy and that's the case, he'll need to average about 96 yards per game between now and that point to be on the right track. 

If he can stay relatively healthy (missing about a game a year) and can also manage to do what Rice did after turning 36, then he can afford to average only 70 yards per game between now and then. And again, he's averaged 87 yards thus far, which is pretty much a happy medium between those two numbers. 

But Johnson's career average has been brought down by his first few seasons. What if he can maintain his prime numbers for the next seven and a half years? Since the start of the 2011 season, Johnson is averaging an insane 114.5 yards per game. If he can maintain that pace while missing only a game or two a year between now and his 36th birthday, he'll by less than 1,000 yards short of Rice's record at the start of the 2021 season. 

He might miss some extra games here and there and that yards-per-game average might come back to earth a little sooner than 2021, but I'd have to imagine that the overall odds favor Johnson being only a couple thousand yards back of Rice when he's 36 or 37. So long as the guy doesn't suffer a career-ending injury, the receiving yards record should be his. 

But Rice's receptions and touchdowns records should be harder to reach.

Rice had 1,549 career catches. Johnson has 535.

Rice averaged 5.1 catches per game, while Johnson is averaging 5.4. He's ahead of Rice's pace, but Rice caught a ridiculous 465 passes after turning 36. Even if Johnson maintains his current prime pace dating back to 2011, he'd need to catch 226 balls after turning 36. Rice is the only receiver in NFL history who has surpassed the 200-reception mark after that point. 

That's pretty much a toss-up.

Meanwhile, Rice had 197 touchdowns. Johnson has 61.

At 0.6 per game, he's actually behind Rice's career pace of 0.7. Johnson's average for his prime years (2011-present) is still only 0.7. Even if he maintains that while staying healthy over the next seven and a half years, he'd need about 55 touchdowns after turning 36 to break Rice's record. Rice himself had only 39 scores beyond that age, and no other receiver in NFL history has had more than 15.

None of it will be easy. Seven seasons into his career, Torry Holt was on the same pace as Johnson in terms of receiving yards and an even better pace in terms of receptions. By the time he was done his seventh season, Randy Moss had 90 touchdowns, which was right there with Rice's pace and well ahead of Johnson's. Larry Fitzgerald, Marvin Harrison and even Chad Johnson were in similar ranges. All faded. Johnson has to avoid that.

Brad Gagnon

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com (covering Super Bowls XLIV, XLV and XLVI), a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Bloguin, but his day gig has him covering all things NFC East for Bleacher Report.

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