2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Detroit Lions
June 18, 2015 | Chet
The Detroit Lions had an immediate four-win improvement in their first season under Jim Caldwell, going 11-5. Those 11 wins were the most that the franchise had in a season since 19991, when they went 12-4 and lost the Conference Championship to Washington. Unlike Detroit teams in the past, these Lions won with defense after making two big offensive hires in Caldwell and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. In 2015, can we expect the offense to get back on track as one of the top fantasy units?
2015 Lions Schedule
When looking ahead at the schedule always proceed with caution. Detroit draws a lot of green above, especially over the back half of their slate in the terms of pass defense. I do anticipate the Eagles and Saints to be better against the pass in 2015, but I still don’t see either as a defense to run away from. Overall, there’s no reason to downgrade any Lions offensive skill players based on a potential rough patch.
What we will need to see happen in 2015 is the Lions offense actually improve this season to feel confident in exploiting those tilts. Detroit was essentially carried by their defense last season after being a fantasy pinball machine for the past few years. Like many, I expected the hire of Lombardi to be the oil in making this offensive machine run to peak efficiency, but that was largely not the case in his first season in the Motor City as they dropped across the board in all significant offensive metrics.
Matt Stafford: Starter or Streamer?
A large part of that loss in offensive output will be credited to the consistently inconsistent play of quarterback Matt Stafford in 2014. Stafford’s average weekly finish for the season was QB17.2, which ranked 25th at the position. That was below players like Alex Smith, Kyle Orton and Mark Sanchez. He had just two top-six scoring weeks and just six top-12 scoring ones, with eight weeks ranking in the bottom half of quarterback scoring.
Taking a look at his career numbers (leaving out 2010 in which he played just three games), he’s been very average after his massive 2011 outbreak. Despite his middling level of production over the past two seasons, I still see a shred of light in the tunnel for Stafford in 2015.
Stafford’s efficiency actually did improve his completion rate and turnover propensity, just not to massive numbers in correlation to his fantasy output. Another year in this offense could see those totals rise with more touchdown tosses. Getting a healthy Calvin Johnson back will be a boost in this department. When Johnson returned at full strength, Stafford was a top 10 quarterback in four of those eight games.
He also will be getting much needed upgrades across the offensive front. Last season, Stafford was sacked 45 times on 664 drop backs, the most in his career. That is just seven fewer times than he had been sacked over 2012 and 2013 combined (1,444 drop backs). Factoring in his volume during those seasons, he went from being sacked once every 27.8 drop backs to once every 14.8 times. That’s a big jump and likely had a ripple effect with his yards per attempt dip. Detroit scrapped two of their worst pass protectors in Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims this offseason, and while Manny Ramirez and Travis Swanson aren’t exactly Evan Mathis and Nick Mangold, that’s still an addition by subtraction on the interior. Less sacks equal more pass attempts because as Stafford’s overall volume was reduced last season, it wasn’t to the extreme in which we can’t expect another 600 plus passes coming from this offense.
The main issue with Stafford in our game is there is still a large enough of a group that believes he has an elite ceiling that it keeps him in an often unreasonable price range. Even with Johnson back, he was a ceiling or floor weekly option, not a weekly starter you can set and forget. You’re going to take low hits with Stafford, meaning he’s essentially a streaming option. If you’re buying in at QB11 overall in rounds 7-9, you’re setting yourself up to eat a lot of unwanted production. At that juncture, I would much rather wait and play matchups around a duo in the draft of Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford or Jay Cutler.
He also does have enough of an angry mob at this point from those who bought him at big price tags the past two years and believe he’s just not a good real football player that his price could vary in drafts this summer. In the event that he does slide in your drafts to the double digit rounds, then he’s the type of quarterback I like to start my stable of quarterbacks around since he has volume, attachment to an elite receiver and schedule safety in his corner.
Transformers Reboot or Just another Michael Bay Sequel?
Calvin Johnson has been a polarizing commodity all offseason. He’s coming off of a season that saw him post his least productive output per game totals since 2010, has missed multiple games over the past two seasons with knee and ankle injuries and is entrenched on the back slope of the age apex for receivers, turning 30 this September.
C.D. Carter did a fantastic covering the ins and outs of Calvin Johnson’s Equity Score earlier. I recommend checking that out since I echo a lot of what that post had to say, but I still have a little to tack on. The high end positives are that once Johnson was healthy and returned last season, he was highly productive and still a target monster. From his return week 10 on, Johnson had four 100-yard games, tied for the third most in the NFL; he was third in targets (91), seventh in receptions (49), fourth in receiving yards (729) and sixth in receiving scores with six. With those totals, he had four top 10 scoring weeks over those eight games.
He also had three weeks at WR37 or lower, following suit with the roller coaster ride Stafford put owners through weekly. Those totals also mark that while he’s still capable of being highly productive; there are other receivers that have caught up or surpassed him on the fantasy circuit. For me, that’s one of the most important components in assessing Johnson now as second round player, which in a vacuum feels like a steal.
A large part of Johnson’s pricing really doesn’t have to with him at all, but rather their just being a lot more models on the dance floor that are smack in the middle of their prime years. When you have guys like Odell Beckham (23 years old), Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green (all 27), and Demaryius Thomas (28) all being younger and all showing that they are capable of matching production with Johnson, it’s just a matter of siding with safer probability in sustaining production as a tie breaker.
That said, I’m going to own a ton of Megatron shares this season because of it. Being able to pair an already proven capable weekly receiver anchor to another younger receiver in his apex or a top shelf back that I’ve taken in round one is something I’m going to pounce all over. Being able to select a proven alpha talent in round one and then coming back in round two and snagging another is too great to pass up. The way the middle of the round two generally shakes out, I’m going to have a hard time turning Johnson away unless one of those other top receivers fall or a back like Arian Foster slides to his spot.
Megatron may have finally found his Starscream last season, and overall, Golden Tate posted better numbers playing the role of sidekick. Tate easily blew past previous career highs in targets (144), receptions (99) and receiving yards (1,331) last season on his was to an overall WR11 finish. Per Pro Football Focus, he led all receivers in yards after the catch (709) and has forced more missed tackles (57) than any other receiver over the past three seasons.
Of course, Tate stacked the bulk of his production filling in for an injured and limited Johnson, like any good sidekick would do. During weeks four and five, Johnson played just 44.2 percent (65 of 147) of the offensive snaps, being used a decoy in those games and seeing just three total targets. He then missed the next three games as Detroit finally decided to let him heal. Over those five games, Tate went ballistic, notching weeks at WR11, WR4, WR38, WR3 and WR6. The rest of the season when Johnson was a full go, his splits weren’t so sensational.
|Games||Tgt||Team %||aDOT||Rec||Team %||Yds||Team %||TD||Team %||Top12 Wk||PPG|
|Rest of Season||85||20.8%||6.7||60||23.7%||732||24.8%||1||7.1%||1||12.9|
It’s not all doom and gloom for Tate if he’s still just a partner in crime as C.D. Carter once again points out in his Equity Scores. For myself, I never find myself in a position to take Tate because I don’t feel he has a high enough weekly ceiling to be my WR2 and his floor is replaceable. That’s because Tate is a player that has consistently relied on catches and yards to anchor his fantasy production over his career, using his aforementioned run after the catch ability to maximize his opportunities. Here are the receivers from 2014 with 50 or more receptions and the percentage of their yardage that stemmed from running after the catch.
|Player||ReYds||YAC||YAC%||YAC / Rec.|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||1305||481||36.86%||5.3|
|Steve L. Smith||1068||375||35.11%||4.7|
The high end names on this list are who you’d largely suspect, being slot reliant players that don’t provide much touchdown upside unless they are playing with a high end quarterback. It’s not to say Tate isn’t relevant, he most definitely is. But the way he scores fantasy points is replaceable throughout the draft in guys like Jarvis Landry, Kendall Wright and Pierre Garcon, all receivers that are cheaper than Tate.
The final player that will likely be selected from this passing game is second year tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron struggled mightily as a rookie, topping 30 receiving yards in a game just three times and had more than three receptions in a given game just once. Struggles are expected for rookie tight ends, but even Ebron stacks up on the lower end of rookie performances for first round tight ends since 2000.
|Year||Pick||Player||Tm||Yr1 Rank||Yr2 Rank||Yr3 Rank|
It’s not uncommon to see rookie tight ends flounder and then gain traction in years two and three, but only Ben Watson and Daniel Graham were worse than Ebron was for fantasy as a rookie. Both bounced back to be usable as streamers, so maybe there’s still hope for Ebron just yet.
The biggest concern I have with Ebron is not his often talked about lack of hands (he did drop four passes as a rookie), it’s that he’s consistently shown he doesn’t have a knack for scoring touchdowns, something that’s kind of important for tight ends in fantasy. As a rookie he scored on just one of his 47 targets. This was after scoring just eight times in college on 186 targets and being a poor red zone producer (29 percent RZTDR). There simply aren’t enough targets available in this offense for Ebron to be a Greg Olsen type of fantasy option, and he’s really not that type of player anyways. His current price point is outlandish, going ahead of players that have already proven to be productive in Coby Fleener and Heath Miller and ahead of fellow young, high ceiling options Tyler Eifert and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Ameer Ring of the Bell
Joique Bell has had a strong three year run, finishing as the overall RB24, RB15 and RB12 in each of those seasons. Over that span, he’s converted from third down garbage time back to short yardage banger and potential lead back. As a touchdown producer, he has proven to be a strong performer near the end zone, converting 54.2 percent (13 of 24) of his carries inside the five-yard line for scores over the past two seasons and his 13 rushing scores in that area rank as the fourth most in the NFL.
That’s about where the feel good feelings for Bell end. Big potential risk creeps in when you factor in he’s now going to be 29-years old and coming off of three surgeries in the past two offseason on his knee and Achilles. Outside of that concern, he just really hasn’t been all that efficient of a player, finishing 22nd in points per touch of all backs with 100 or more touches in 2014.
His receiving production and role in that capacity fell way off in 2014, catching 34 passes for 322 yards after back to back seasons of 50 plus catches and nearly 500 yards receiving each of those years. He’s largely become dependent on volume and rushing production, but as stated, he hasn’t really been an above league average runner.
|Player||Team||Att||2 Yds or Less||%||5+ Yds||%||10+ Yds||%|
It’s highly possible that Detroit views him better served as a committee back, and by bringing in Ameer Abdullah with the 54th overall selection, they could limit the volume he saw over the back half of 2014 when Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick were banged up. In a small sample, before Reggie Bush’s ankle injury in week five, Bell and Bush each had exactly 57 touches with Bell at 42 percent of the team rushing attempts. The plus in his corner is that mentioned short yardage viability, which should keep him the RB2 neighborhood if he remains upright. Problem is that his current sticker price is just too rich for a player that is not electric and needs the offense he’s in to set him up to do the one thing he’s still doing well.
Abdullah is a Tiki barber-esque prospect right down to the early fumbling concerns, and was profiled here by Chad Scott prior to the draft. He lands in an immediate spot to showcase his strengths as both a runner and a pass catcher in Detroit. With Reggie Bush’s departure in free agency, that frees up a role for Abdullah to work in unison with Bell. Joe Lombardi comes from a staff that always used multiple backs, generally with each representing a different functionality for the offense. It’s probable that Abdullah will have his weekly overall touches limited and have a low amount of true scoring opportunities early, but this could be a reverse Gio Bernard/Jeremy Hill situation in which the smaller player is also the all-around better option at the position. If Abdullah can hold price point near RB36, then I’ll be buying whatever shares I can because I believe he’s a better talent than Bell is and has a chance to supplant him and I also believe he will have standalone value in reception leagues. If there comes a point in which Abdullah’s price meets or exceeds that of Bell’s, then Bell in turn can become a value as he’s likely to be the primary touchdown scorer.
Theo Riddick is also hanging around as a space player, so it’s not surprising he’s gaining praise during OTA’s. Riddick did flash as a sophomore, but that was largely due to necessity during the absence of Reggie Bush. Here are his splits when Bush did and didn’t play courtesy of the Game Splits App at RotoViz.
When Bush was out he was a locked in RB2, which really may point another neon arrow towards the potential ceiling of Abdullah since Riddick added nothing at all on the ground. He totaled just 20 rushing attempts and notched just 2.6 yards per carry with them. Riddick will still hold some usage in the passing game, but it’s hard to see him as a viably weekly player of significance that can garner enough tangible snaps to make himself fantasy relevant. It’s very hard for me to carve out him seeing significant touches overall given the backfield coming out of the blocks, but no team threw to their backs more often than Detroit did in 2014.
There’s a non-zero chance that this backfield could be Abdullah and Riddick’s to share if Bell really flounders, but Riddick is going to need Bell or Abdullah to miss time or Abdullah to fail out of backfield to make his way truly onto your radar. If it happens, he’s an easy pickup. Given the lack of talented depth at tight end and receiver, these backs could all have heavy involvement in the passing game once again.