Now the Lions are rewarding the star receiver, giving "Megatron" a contract worthy of his catchy nickname.
Johnson has signed an eight-year deal worth up to $132 million, the largest contract in NFL history. He had a year remaining on a deal he signed after being drafted in 2007, but this extension starts immediately and runs through the 2019 season.
"I'm so comfortable here now," the 26-year-old Johnson said at news conference Wednesday. "At first, not at all, but being here for five years, being around these people here in Detroit, teammates and just the city — I'm just growing accustomed to it."
Johnson's agent, Bus Cook, said the contract is worth $60 million guaranteed. That figure and the total value of the deal are both NFL records.
"Calvin's one of those guys — we've said this about a few guys that we have in our building — whatever they pay him is not enough," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He's truly a special player."
After years of questionable drafts, the Lions finally began building a talented nucleus when they took Johnson with the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. Detroit went 0-16 in his second season but added quarterback Matthew Stafford with the top pick in 2009. The Lions then took defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the second pick the following year.
Detroit made the playoffs last season for the first time in a dozen years. The challenge now is keeping these stars long term, and the Lions took care of Johnson with minimal angst.
"They were happy to get this thing done with, and I was happy as well," Johnson said. "It wasn't a lot of confrontation. We weren't butting heads or anything. It was just something that we knew needed to get done."
The 6-foot-5 Johnson is a two-time Pro Bowler and his 45 touchdowns receiving are the most in the NFL since 2008. His deal tops one given to receiver Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona last year — an eight-year deal that could pay him as much as $120 million.
News of the record contract rippled across the league.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who signed a 7-year deal worth up to $100 million at the start of last season, tweeted: "Calvin Johnson! Brother you're Worth every cent!!! But hey,Can I borrow a Dollar! Hahaha Now that's how its done! Congratulation!"
Johnson is coming off a spectacular season in which he caught 96 passes for a league-best 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. He became the third player in NFL history with at least 95 receptions, 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns in a season, joining Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
He's also one of six receivers to post at least 45 TD catches and 5,000 yards receiving in a four-season span, along with Rice, Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison and Lance Alworth.
"There are not many guys when you do a contract of this magnitude," team president Tom Lewand said. "We obviously did one years ago with Barry Sanders, and he was one of those kinds of guys, who is so special on the field, truly deserving of a contract of this size, and a guy who you have no doubt will handle all that comes with it with a great deal of skill on and off the field."
Stafford is coming off his first full season of good health. Johnson and the rest of the team benefited.
"We know what Matt can do," Johnson said. "We know what we can do as an offence. We can get hot at any time. There's a lot of potential."
In the playoffs, Johnson caught 12 passes for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns in a loss to New Orleans, becoming the first player with 200 yards receiving in a playoff debut.
Johnson said the conclusion of Peyton Manning's tenure in Indianapolis made him appreciate the opportunity to stay with the Lions for a while.
"The comfort level you receive, being able to be in one place for a long time, is unlike any other," Johnson said. "Having security, not having to worry about where I'm going to be next year. And then two — having a good team, having a lot of guys locked up on this team that you've had success with, and that you just continue to grow with."
Stafford has three years left on the deal he signed as a rookie, so the Lions appear set with arguably the league's top quarterback-receiver tandem for the foreseeable future.
"When you're fortunate to have a good quarterback, those don't come by a lot in the league," Johnson said. "How many teams are looking for a No. 1 quarterback right now? I would have to be beside myself to leave here."