In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC North, continuing with the Detroit Lions.
Recap of 2015: Coming into the season, the Lions had high hopes. They were coming off Wild Card finish in the previous season and were coming into the season with a chip on their shoulder after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Dallas Cowboys in a very controversial football game. Unfortunately though, the 2015 season was a tale of two halves for the Detroit Lions. The team got off to a 1-7 start which is tied for their second worst start to a season over the first 8 games of a season (we still can’t forget the 0-8 start in 2001 and then again in 2008 when the team finished 0-16.) After a Week 7 loss to the Vikings, Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi was relieved of his duties. Then after an embarrassing Week 8 loss to the Chiefs in London, Team Owner Martha Ford decided to relieve President Tom Lewand and General Manager Martin Mayhew of their duties with the organization. The team shockingly held on to Head Coach Jim Caldwell. In stepped Rod Wood as President and Jim Bob Cooter as Offensive Coordinator. The team responded immediately to the front office and coaching changes as they would go 6-2 over their final 8 games to finish the season 7-9 and in third place of the NFC North. They even started to sneak back into the playoff picture before officially being eliminated after their Week 14 loss to the Rams. Ultimately though this team was undone by falling back into their 2008 ways just one season removed from their impressive 11-5 campaign.
Significant Additions: WR Anquan Boldin, WR Marvin Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, CB Johnson Bademosi, FS Rafael Bush
Significant Subtractions: WR Calvin Johnson, RB Joique Bell, WR Calvin Johnson, CB Rashean Mathis, WR Calvin Johnson, LB Stephen Tulloch, WR Calvin Johnson, OT Manny Ramirez
Potential Impact Rookies: OT Taylor Decker, DT A’Shawn Robinson, C Graham Glasgow
Team Strengths: The Lions pass game was one of the few bright spots for this team. Matthew Stafford had one of his most effective seasons in his 7-year career. He had a career high in completion percentage posting a 67.2% completion rate, which ranked him 5th best in the league. He also threw for 32 TDs against only 13 INTs. He also posted a 97.2 QB Rating which put him inside the top-10 of the league. The Lions also had three WRs post 80+ catches on the season; Megatron (Calvin Johnson), Golden Tate, and Theo Riddick. They were the only team in the league to have three players in the top-20 in the league for receptions. Calvin Johnson played much of the season with a nagging ankle injury. He was listed on the injury report from Weeks 7-17 with either a Probable or Questionable designation. Despite the ankle issues, Megatron still posted 1,200+ receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. Golden Tate saw a decrease in yardage but was still effective by catching 90 passes this season. The surprise was RB Theo Riddick. He finished the season with exactly 80 catches out of the backfield to lead all RBs. Unfortunately for Matt Stafford and the Lions, Megatron followed the footsteps of fellow Detroit legend Barry Sanders and hung up his cleats all too soon. In come Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin to try to fill the void that will be undoubtedly left by Megatron.
Team Weaknesses: In all honesty, the Lions did not necessarily do anything overly terrible or overly great. They were a middle of the road team ranking 13th in Offensive DVOA, 16th in Defensive DVOA, and 13th in Special Teams DVOA. If we could pick one thing the Lions were below the middle-of-the-pack it would fall on their offensive line and the running game as a result of the offensive line. The Lions finished the league last overall in total rushing offense with an average of a mere 3.8 yards per carry and 83.4 yards per game. The team had high hopes for rookie RB Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell but the two could never get it going. Bell played much of the season injured and missed part of the season. This can be directly related to the sub-par play of the offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked them as the 24 out of 32. The team also had higher hopes from this group after they drafted G Laken Tomlinson and returned C Travis Swanson and T LaAdrian Waddle. All three underperformed immensely. Waddle graded out as one of the worst tackles in the league and was eventually cut halfway through the season. Swanson found himself on IR to end the season and Tomlinson never got off on the right foot in his rookie year. (This is not surprising being that he was drafted out of Duke. #goterps) The team also allowed the 6th most sacks in the league last season with 44. If the Lions want any shot this year they will need to keep Stafford clean and start opening up some holes for Abdullah. The team did take a step in the right direction by using another 1st round pick on their line by drafting T Taylor Decker out of Ohio State and a 3rd round pick on Center Graham Glasgow out of Michigan.
Fantasy Players to Watch: For the past 8 years, this was an obvious pick; Megatron. He was a top-15 receiver every year since 2008. In all but one of those seasons he had 1,000+ yards receiving. Let’s have a moment of silence for one of the greats at receiver in my generation’s time………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Now to try and figure out the fantasy landscape in Detroit. Matt Stafford is a borderline QB1 in my opinion based on the fact that I anticipate the Lions being in a situation to throw the ball and throw the ball a ton. The run game isn’t quite there yet where that will start to affect the number of Stafford’s dropbacks and I see Stafford throwing for 4,000+ yards and 25+ TDs. The next question then becomes, to who? I really like Marvin Jones this year. He excelled in Cincinnati when he was healthy and he has the potential to take the top off of a defense. I also like Golden Tate in this offense. A healthy Marvin Jones should slide Tate back into the slot where he will be able to put up the kind of stats he did two years ago. I like both of these receivers to see 100+ targets and catch 70+ passes. The sleeper that wasn’t a sleeper, Ameer Abdullah, should be back on your radar again this year as a sleeper for the 2nd year in a row. He now has a full season under his belt and this backfield is now his. He does have to share with Theo Riddick but that is in strictly passing downs. I don’t expect Abdullah to be a top 10 RB but I do think he will teeter with that RB2 line, especially in a league where it seems half the league has become RBBC. Riddick should be only be considered in deeper PPR leagues. He does not see much of the field in run first situations and shouldn’t be considered as anything more than a flex. One guy who I think is finally primed for his coming out party is TE Eric Ebron. I’ve been high on this guy the last two years and he has basically burned me every year. In the past two seasons he has really hurt himself by drops and injuries leaving the door open for veteran Brandon Pettigrew. Now that Pettigrew is on the PUP list, Ebron has every chance to succeed and gain the trust of Stafford. He is a TE2 with TE1 upside. You should be able to snag him in a late round this year after he has lost the trust of most fantasy owners. Third time will be charm for me. I have faith.
2016 Outlook: Based off of how the Lions were able to close out last season by going 6-2 and winning their last three, the 2016 should be better. Jim Bob Cooter has now had a full offseason to prepare with Stafford and the offense will look to stay poised despite the loss of Calvin Johnson. The team brought in Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin to fill the void. Both are proven veterans in the league and are confident they can do their best to fill that void. The offensive line should be improved by bringing in another 1st-rounder in Taylor Decker to pair with Swanson and Tomlinson. The Lions also have one of the best pass rushers in the game in Ezekiel Ansah and I fully expect him to continue to impose fear on opposing QBs. The team also brought back Haloti Ngata and brought in Wallace Gilberry to help out along the defensive line to stuff the run. Detroit also has a much more favorable schedule this season by getting paired with the AFC South and NFC (L)East. If the team can get better play from their offensive line and run game I think we will see a major improvement from 2015.
Record Prediction: The season starts off tough for the Lions with two of their first three games on the road (@Ind & @GB). They do catch a break over their next four however with matchups against the Bears, Eagles (LOL), Rams (LOL), and Redskins (LOL). They also get the Titans (LOL) at home in Week 2. This team should be able to enter the Week 9 Bye with a 5-3 record. The second half of the season is relatively more challenging for the Lions and I see them finishing out the season at 9-7 and just barely hanging on to the 2nd wild card spot. The NFC will be down again this year and I think the loss of Teddy Bridgewater (RIP) for the Vikings opens the door just enough for the Lions. Hopefully for the Lions they can avoid falling even further into their 2008 ways and get back to the 2014 ways and hold up my playoff prediction.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images