The Lions have been a haven for fantasy production over the past three seasons. Outside of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, they’ve consistently provided fantasy relevancy at the running back position as well despite a revolving door at the position. They’ve peppered in some tight end production a bit, but overall this has been one of the better fantasy offenses over the past fiave seasons. 2014 doesn’t project to much different, if not better.
2014 Lions Schedule
|1||New York Giants|
|3||Green Bay Packers|
|4||@||New York Jets|
|7||New Orleans Saints|
|12||@||New England Patriots|
|14||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|17||@||Green Bay Packers|
Detroit really runs into a great slate all year long on paper. As usual, tread lightly over expected strength of schedule carryover, but their opening eight games look ripe for fantasy picking. After their bye they hit a small valley of good pass defenses, and then are at home for the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs.
While Scott Linehan was the offensive coordinator in Detroit, they posted overall numbers that were severely crooked, but mostly inflated purely by absurd volume.
Offensive Rank Under Scott Linehan
Only once did Detroit combine efficiency with volume, and that 2011 season was a magical run for fantasy owners. With Linehan moving on to call plays for the Dallas Cowboys when the front office cleaned house, Detroit has brought on Jim Caldwell as head coach along with Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator. Both of those guys understand the importance of offensive efficiency and using individual players as spokes in an offensive wheel. Caldwell spent two seasons with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis while Lombardi has been glued to the hip of Drew Brees and Sean Payton since 2007.
Matt Stafford, Consistently Inconsistent
That efficiency is important because it’s the only thing that has held back Stafford and this offense from being one the best in the league. He had accuracy issues entering the NFL, completing only 57.1 percent of his passes in three college seasons with a high mark of 61.4 in his final year at Georgia. Accuracy is one area that is rarely improved upon in the NFL, contrary to every coach wanting to select a player solely based on arm strength, and Stafford hasn’t been an exception for the bulk of his career.
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Stafford only played in 13 games his first two seasons, both in which he completed under 60 percent of his throws, so we’re only focusing on his past three seasons here. The one season he resembled an NFL quarterback in terms of a desirable completion percentage, he delivered on the fantasy end as well.
The place where his inefficiency has shown up the most is the red zone, which also correlates with Detroit’s lackluster performance in terms of points per play each season. Out of the 27 quarterbacks to have at least 100 red zone attempts since 2011, Stafford ranks 14th in TD/INT ratio, 18th in rating and 21st completion percentage.
Red Zone QB Performance Since 2011 (min 100 att.)
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While he’ll never reach the level of Brees, he doesn’t have to for those investing in him. Even reaching league averages (60.7 since 2011), he can become a top end option with his weapons. I anticipate him to get there under the tutelage of Lombardi. Stafford only just turned 26 years old this February. He’s still younger than Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton, with double the starting experience.
Best Backfield in the NFL?
It’s a legit question to ask. With Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Detroit has a pair of versatile backs on par with anyone in the league. The Detroit duo combined for 2,709 yards from scrimmage, 103 receptions, and 15 touchdowns a year ago. Bell had seven top 24 weeks, including finishing as PPR RB2 and RB9 in the two games Bush was absent. Bush missed those two weeks, but posted 10 top 24 weeks in his 14 games played with five top three performances.
Detroit RB Usage in 2013
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Lombardi definitely has been around using timeshare backfields successfully from his time in New Orleans. Bush was there for four of those seasons, averaging 4.8 receptions per contest. Caldwell also knows how to rotate backs, from Donald Brown and Joseph Addai with the Colts, to Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice in Baltimore. This is going to be an effective pairing in which both players will have standalone fantasy value.
Bush was one of nine backs to post over 100 PPR receiving points in 2013, the second time in his career doing so. Even with Bell signing his recent three-year extension and the expectation of them sharing carries, don’t eject on Bush in the third round. Pass catching backs age better than bell cows, Bush will consistently be one of the better RB2’s weekly even with touches shaved off. I anticipate Bell to lead the team in attempts, but Bush to take away receptions as a trade off.
Bell is only a year and a half younger than Bush, turning 28 in August. He’s had a Fred Jackson-esque start to his career, not garnering touches at the NFL level until he was already 26 years of age. Bell was sixth overall in fantasy points per rushing attempt a season ago, on par with Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, and Eddie Lacy even though his yards per carry took a pretty significant hit from 2012. That fantasy production per carry wasn’t due to his effectiveness near the goal line either. Bell was also eighth overall in fantasy points per touch removing touchdowns. As mentioned, he was great near the end zone, though, posting the fourth highest conversion rate of carries resulting in touchdowns from inside the five.
I will slightly fan the flames of his studliness, as he’s best suited as a combo back like he’s been used. When Bush was out, he posted strong weeks, but mostly on crazy volume with little efficiency those weeks. Both of these players benefit from each other being active. I still believe Bush is the better fantasy option overall and the better player, but I don’t fault owners for going with the cheaper option in this scenario, which is Bell.
The only real knock on both Bell and Bush is that both have a moderate fumbling issue. Bush is tied for the lead league in fumbles over the past two seasons with nine, while Bell is tenth with six. In terms of fumbles per touch, both are in the top five. Fumbles are random acts that really are minuscule compared to the number of times a back touches the ball, but unfortunately coaches don’t see it that way.
There’s been a lot of buzz about sophomore sixth rounder Theo Riddick getting some touches. With all of the weapons that Detroit has, I’m not really buying it. Riddick was one the worst graded backs coming out a season ago and turned his 14 touches in 2013 into only 51 total yards. Without an injury, it’s hard to put much stock into the early summer reports.
Megatron, the Autobots Have Arrived
No one has been as dominant over the past six years as a receiver than Calvin Johnson. In fact, he’s had one of the absolute best starts for any receiver through his first seven seasons. Out of all receivers to begin their first seven seasons with at least 500 receptions and 5,000 receiving yards, he ranks near the very top.
All Receivers in NFL History With 500 Receptions and 5,000 Yards Through Seven Years
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There’s not much more to say about the top receiver in fantasy. He fits the mold of what an elite receiver looks like, is one the best targets for his team out of all receivers, and is one of the best in the red zone. So he definitely justifies his lofty price tag.
No longer will the Lions trot out Kris Durham and Nate Burleson opposite of Megatron. His new sidekick, Golden Tate (I don’t care if its cliché, I’m calling him Bumblebee from now on) will be a welcome addition. Tate has been one the league’s most efficient receivers while playing for a team that has thrown the second fewest passes in the league since 2011.
He led all receivers with at least 50 catches in 2013 in yards after the catch per reception at 7.9, something that is going to come into play this season when he’s drawing accommodating coverage frequently. Tate is slam dunk buy for me as a WR3. His overall production may come in chunks, masking some inconsistency that will be created because this passing game is still about one man in the end. If you land Tate as your WR4 while going receiver heavy early, even better.
Only five rookie tight ends since 1970 have scored over 100 fantasy points, making Eric Ebron a player to avoid in redraft circles. Ebron is only 21 years old, so his yearly dominance may take a while, but James Todd points out that Ebron doesn’t have to be dead to you. With the creativity of Lombardi, anticipate Ebron to be more of the WR3 in the offense, playing a chess piece role to create mismatches. With only Tate and Johnson stretching defenses, Ebron is a player to monitor early in the season in terms of usage.
Joseph Fauria still remains a red zone only option, likely playing the role of touchdown vulture to our shares of everyone else in the offense. Brandon Pettigrew is nearly an afterthought for fantasy purposes. He’s regressed every year of his career and has only five touchdowns over the past two seasons, but pay attention to his role in preseason still if you’re interested in how Ebron will be used.
I’m not really terribly concerned with who wins the third receiver spot unless Ebron really crashes and burns, which may not be a major stretch. Whether it is Ryan Broyles, Kris Durham, or rookie T.J. Jones, all three will be playing cameo roles this season. With Detroit’s backs and Ebron, there’s really no need to force the issue there for fantasy even though you’ll be tempted by volume.
With the running backs, Tate and the athletic tight ends navigating the cavernous lanes created by the respect given to Johnson, this is going to be one the league’s best offenses on a weekly basis. Will there be weeks with ambiguity? Sure there’ll be. But outside of Johnson, I see everyone in this offense fairly priced as far as drafts are concerned right now.
Detroit is one of the teams I am most excited for this season because they have the ultimate offensive personnel to run any set they desire and play at any tempo. They are also paired with the best kind of defense you want attached to a high scoring offense because they have a dominant defensive line that is elite in stopping the run and have a questionable secondary. Over their final 10 games in 2013, Detroit held eight opponents to under 90 rushing yards and seven under 65 yards. 2014 could very well be the best fantasy season we’ve seen from Detroit, which would be saying a lot.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Tate – he has elite college pedigree for a tweener sized receiver and has increased production in every season of his career. If he finished as mid WR2, I wouldn’t think twice.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Bell – There’s still an element here that all of his production was completely volume dependent under Linehan, a coordinator that turned RB2 water into wine his entire career. The price is still right as of now, but if it increases, your floor projection could become the missing ingredient baked into the pie.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Fauria – We’ve played the song and dance of pursuing the WR3 in both Detroit and New Orleans before, so just stay the course with the back-ups at that position. The real fantasy nectar to be squeezed will come from which tight end gets the grasp on target shares. Fauria is still elite at scoring touchdowns, with growth in his game overall, he could dispatch Pettigrew along the line.