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2014 Fantasy Preview: Detroit Lions

Continuing with the team by team previews of the NFC North, Robert gives his outlook on the Detroit Lions.

Gregory Shamus

Offseason Losses: Nate Burleson, Shaun Hill

Offseason Additions: Golden Tate, Kevin Ogletree, Dan Orlovsky,

Drafted: Eric Ebron, T.J. Jones, Nate Freese

The Detroit Lions had high expectations going into the 2013 season a year after finishing 10-6, and barely missing out on the playoffs to the Minnesota Vikings off of a tiebreaker.  2013 was supposed to be the year they take the next step forward and make the playoffs for the second time in three years, after having over a ten year playoff drought.  The beginning of the season started out promising with a 5-3 record, and then two division Quarterbacks got hurt (Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler).  The rest of the season imploded on the Lions as they finished with a record of 7-9 missing out on the playoffs again.  This caused a coaching change to occur with Jim Schwartz out, and Jim Caldwell in.  The offensive coordinator has also changed with the hiring of Joe Lombardi, the former offensive assistant of the New Orleans Saints for seven years, and five of those years as the QB coach.  Even though the Lions finished the year poorly, does not mean that fantasy value is not to be had on this team.  The problems with the Lions winning games stems from the inept pass defense they show week after week, causing them to play shootouts.  With so many high scoring games, the Lions are ripe for extreme fantasy value from the top players.  Let’s take a positional review of the relevant fantasy players for the Detroit Lions.

Quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford, Dan Orlovsky

It has now been three consecutive years of Matthew Stafford playing in all 16 regular season games.  Over the past three years his season averages are 4885 passing yards, 30 TD’s, and slightly over 17 interceptions.  Those are some elite numbers that he has, and it is no wonder he has been doing so with the volume of attempts he has had during that span.  A coaching change from Scott Linehan to Jim Caldwell, a more conservative play caller, may cause less pass attempts to be available for Stafford, but remember their new offensive coordinator was working with the Saints for the past seven years.  I see the pass attempts to maybe come down from the 633 of 2013 to somewhere around the range of 600, however that will still be plenty.  Lombardi had been helping Drew Brees and learning under the pass happy Sean Payton, and his creative use of the skill players, like Darren Sproles and once upon a time Reggie Bush, to help Brees move the ball down the field.  I currently have Stafford ranked as my number 6 QB behind Andrew Luck, but would not argue if you want Stafford before Luck after the last three years he had.  The what if Stafford gets injured scenario is not the same as it has been over the past few years.  With Shaun Hill no longer a member of the team, the Lions went and signed ten year veteran backup Dan Orlovsky to take over that role.  This is not good news for fantasy owners, as each receiver not named Calvin Johnson takes a major blow to their value.  The reason Calvin Johnson is not effected is because of the tremendous talent he is, and has shown in the past that he can put up big numbers without Stafford throwing him the ball.  If Dan Orlovsky had to become the starter, he should not be one that is picked up in 12 team leagues, but better to monitor his first two performances and evaluate from there.

Running Backs: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure, Theo Riddick

Last season the newly acquired Reggie Bush made a huge splash with the Detroit Lions accumulating over 1500 total yards and 7 TD’s, but he was not the only RB on the roster who was startable in all leagues.  Joique Bell continued his surprising 2012 season with an incredible one in 2013 with just under 1200 total yards and 8 TD’s.  Those who watched Lions games last year saw that Bush had to continually come out of games for extended periods at a time for either a nagging injury, or because of fumbling concerns.  He had 5 total fumbles (4 lost) last year, and in games where this happened, Bell would take the next few series from him.  The fumbling problems that plagued Bush last year may not seem to be alarming when you consider that Bell only had one less fumble (4 total, 3 loss) over the course of the season.  The biggest concern to Reggie Bush is that the new offensive coordinator was in New Orleans while Bush was there, and his usage was very limited.  Last year Bush had 223 carries, while Bell had 166, and they had 54 and 53 catches in 2013.  For 2014, I envision a shift in how the touches are divvied up.  For Reggie Bush, I see his carries being dropped down to the range of 160-180, but his receptions going up to the 65-80 range.  Joique Bell will then see his carries go up to somewhere in the 190-210 range, but at the expense of fewer receptions in the 35-45 range.  What would that mean for each of the players values?  Currently our Kylan Easterling has Bush as his number 24 RB, and Bell as his number 32 guy.  I think that Bell is too low for this ranking, but Bush is about right at 24, since he does have some injury risk, and his carries are dramatically going down in my opinion.  For comparisons sakes, ESPN has Reggie as the 15th best RB, and Joique as the 27th.  That is far too optimistic of a ranking for Bush in my opinion, but the Bell ranking is nice.  I would personally have the two rated back to back in my rankings at 23 and 24 with Bush getting the slight nod off of his more explosive skill set.  No other Running Back on the roster last season had over 10 carries, and although I do expect this to change, Neither of Theo Riddick or Mikel Leshoure would gain any value unless a season ending injury happened to either of the big two.  If that did happen, I would expect Riddick to be the next guy in line, and he would become an interesting pickup in 12 team leagues or deeper.

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Ryan Broyles, Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree

What really is there to say about Calvin Johnson, other than the fact that he is a monster who should be drafted as the top WR again this year.  He did only play 14 games last year, but even with sitting a couple of games out, he was the third highest scoring WR last year behind Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas.  The two new pass catching additions into Detroit don’t change his value one bit.  Calvin will always receive the same percentage of targets from Stafford, like in years past, which will produce another great top season.  He is a borderline first round pick for some, but for me, I would confidently take him as high as 7th in leagues this year because of the consistency that comes with his great numbers.  New arrival Golden Tate may just be that second receiver opposite Calvin the Lions have been looking for.  Last year Tate played in the ultra-conservative Seahawks offense, and put up numbers of 898 receiving yards, and 5 TD’s.  This season I see Tate almost replicating those numbers, with a few less receiving yards.  I see 800 yards and 5 TD’s, but that does leave room for the upside that comes with having Matthew Stafford as your QB.  If everything were to click between the two, he immediately becomes a top 15 option, but the likelihood of that happening is slim to me.  I would currently rate Golden Tate somewhere in the early to mid 40 range, and one who can be picked earlier if you are looking for a pure upside play because you took safer receivers early.  The guy whose role is being taken by that new addition is the oft-injured Ryan Broyles.  Recovering from a ruptured Achilles last season, Broyles is now relegated to at best being the number 3 receiver, which doesn’t hold much weight here.  With so many mouths to feed on the Lions roster, I can’t see a scenario where Ryan Broyles becomes fantasy relevant this season.  When taking his injury history into account, and all of the other options for Stafford to throw to, Broyles will need a change of scenery to try and rejuvenate his career.  Another new addition to the team is Kevin Ogletree, who will probably be fighting for a roster spot with the tall Kris Durham.  Both of these players are not ones who should be on your radar yet, but if Calvin Johnson were to get hurt very early in the season, presumably one of these two would be thrown into a starting role opposite Tate.  If that were to happen, once news confirms who will be the one stepping into that role, run to the waiver wire and pick them up on the chance that they will become viable FLEX options for you later in the season. 

Tight Ends: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria

This will be the most frustrating position for fantasy owners.  Before the draft, Eric Ebron was looking like he would be one of the few TE’s to make an immediate impact for fantasy owners in 12 team leagues.  Then he was drafted by the Detroit Lions, who already have a logjam at the position.  Brandon Pettigrew was re-signed in the offseason, and Joseph Fauria proved to be a big redzone target for Matthew Stafford.  Now enter Ebron into this three headed monster and it becomes a mess.  If you could start just the Detroit TE each week that player would be very productive, but fantasy football is not played this way.  Instead you have to endure the headache that will come with trying to start Ebron, even though Pettigrew is the better blocker at this point in time, and Fauria has proven his dominance in the redzone with Stafford.  Could Ebron become a star with Stafford someday?  I do believe that is possible, but the future top 5 TE seasons may not come to fruition until his 3rd year in the league.  By that point, he will have learned more about blocking, and build up some chemistry with Stafford.  For Dynasty leagues, he is a top five pick in rookie drafts, but for redraft leagues, I have him currently ranked as my 21st TE, which is someone who is only to be picked as a pure flier late in 12 or 14 team leagues.  Pettigrew and Fauria should go undrafted in all fantasy leagues, but if Ebron does get hurt, I could envision Fauria stepping up his role from last year and becoming a more leaned on target between the 20’s, instead of only the redzone.

With one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, the Detroit Lions are a fantasy gold mine.  With that said though, I see this team taking another step back record wise this year, as that defense did not get any better over the offseason, while other teams did improve.  I expect the Lions to finish with 6-10 but playing in quite a few shootouts.  David Akers is no longer the Kicker for this explosive offense, so that role goes to the newly drafted Nate Freese.  Rank him just like you would have ranked Akers, or Jason Hanson over the past few years expecting to get a lot of field goals and extra points.  With top options at their respective positions like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and starter worthy players like Reggie Bush, and Joique Bell, look at the Lions to do more of the same as last year.  Check back with us on Wednesday as I look at the Chicago Bears, and dig through potentially relevant players for the 2014 season.