Detroit Lions: 2015 Outlook

 
 
 
 
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Detroit Lions

By Shawn Childs, Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Lions are coming off their best defensive season since 1970. They finished second in the league in total yards allowed (300.9) thanks in large part to their top-ranked rush defense (3.2 yards per carry, 69.3 yards per game). Detroit allowed the third-fewest points (282). Their defense was the key to the Lions' second playoff berth in their last 15 years. It's hard to believe that after years and years of failure on defense the Lions would let their best defensive player, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, sign with another team.

Detroit's offense faded badly last season. From 2011 to 2013, they ranked in the top six in total yards. Last year, they fell to 19th (340.8). They ended up 22nd in points scored (321). Jim Caldwell returns for his second season as the head coach. He has a 37-27 career coaching record in four seasons split between the Lions and the Indianapolis Colts. That includes a 2-14 season in 2011 when Colts were without Peyton Manning. Joe Lombardi will run the offense for the second straight year. He has nine years of NFL coaching experience and previously served as the New Orleans Saints' OC. First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin did a great job last season. Austin has been a coach for 11 seasons. From 2007 to 2009, he was the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. In their 85-year history, the Lions have a 528-625 franchise record, which slots them 25th in winning percentage (.458). They have made the playoffs only 11 times in the Super Bowl era). Detroit is 0-7 in the playoffs since 1991.

Free Agency

Ndamukong Suh left to sign with the Miami Dolphins. He graded out as the second-best defensive tackle against the run, but he also racked up eight sacks, 12 QB hits and 37 QB hurries. Haloti Ngata was brought in to replace Suh in the starting lineup. Ngata is still serviceable against the run, but he doesn't get after the quarterback nearly as well. DT C.J. Mosley also joined the Dolphins. He offered a slight edge against the run over the past two years. Defensive end George Johnson will collect his next check from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson had value as a situational pass rusher last season (seven sacks, five QB hits and 27 QB hurries). The Lions are hoping Tyrunn Walker will pick up some of the slack following Johnson's departure. He added value against the run and the pass for the Saints last year. DT Nick Fairley moved on to the St. Louis Rams. He missed the second half of the 2014 season because of a sprained knee. Farley is a former first-round pick with value against the run and the pass.

Detroit added a pair of cornerbacks, Chris Owens and Josh Wilson, for depth in the secondary. Owens was a liability in pass coverage as a part-time player with the Kansas City Chiefs last year. (37 completions on 57 attempts for 462 yards and four touchdowns). Wilson has settled into a league-average player over the last four years. CB Cassius Vaughn signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He has been well below the league average against the pass over the past three years.

Running back Reggie Bush signed with San Francisco 49ers. Reggie is a solid pass catcher, but the Lions had viable options to replace him on the roster. Lance Moore was brought in for depth at wide receiver.

Starting guard Rob Sims is still an unrestricted free agent. His game has been slightly below league average over the past two years. Detroit traded for Manuel Ramirez to help replace Sims. Ramirez allowed only one sack last year while showing some decline as a run blocker.

Draft

The Lions selected guard Laken Tomlinson with the 28th overall pick. He will have the most value in a quick-hitting power run scheme while holding his own in pass protection. His game has limited upside due to his lack of foot speed, which may cause problems for him versus speed rushers.

In the second round, Detroit added running back Ameer Abdullah. At the NFL combine, Ameer flashed electric quickness (3.95 20-yard shuttle) and plus strength (24 reps on the bench press). Abdullah is just 5 feet 9 and 205 pounds, and his top gear is only NFL average. However, Ameer could be a very valuable weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. He needs to fix his ball security issues.

Third-round cornerback Alex Carter will work best in a cover-two zone scheme, and he has upside as a run defender. Carter is a physical player who needs to improve his press-coverage techniques.

DT Gabe Wright will chip in to fill the holes that were created along Detroit's D-line during free agency. Wright has a great first step and plus power, but he can sometimes get neutralized at the line of scrimmage. Wright has upside in all areas once he learns how to get off his blocks consistently and improves his pass-rushing moves.

With their fifth pick, Detroit added pass-catching fullback Michael Burton, who will have value as a lead blocker.

Quandre Diggs was drafted in the sixth round. Diggs is an undersized cornerback (5 feet 9, 196 pounds) who has a solid feel for the game. His lack of elite speed and quickness hurts his chance of being a full-time starter. Quandre has some playmaking ability and solid tackling skills.

In the seventh round, the Lions invested in offensive tackle Corey Robinson. He plays with power, but his lack of speed requires him to improve his pass-protection techniques.



Detroit Lions RB Ameer Abdullah

Offensive Line

Detroit finished 28th in rushing last year, averaging 88.9 yards per game. Ball carriers gained only 3.6 yards per carry and scored 11 TDs. The Lions allowed 45 sacks, the most during Matthew Stafford's six-year career. Detroit finished 12th in passing yards (251.9 YPG) with 22 TDs and 12 interceptions

Left tackle Riley Reiff hasn't been an impact player at this point of his career after the Lions selected him in the first round in 2012. Last year, he allowed three sacks, which was a step up from 2013, but Riley allowed five QB hits and 31 QB hurries. His run blocking has been slightly above league average during his career.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson is expected to start as a rookie, and second-year man Travis Swanson is pretty much locked in as the Lions' center. After being a part-time player last season, Swanson has been the subject of many positive reports this spring. Swanson isn't especially strong or athletic.

Right guard Larry Warford played at an elite level as a third-round rookie in 2013. He didn't allow a sack and graded out positively in run and pass blocking. He struggled as a run blocker early last season but did play well over his last six starts. Larry allowed two sacks, two QB hits and 12 QB hurries. Larry missed a few games in 2014 with a knee injury.

Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle has made 18 starts over the past two seasons after the Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013. In his career, Waddle has allowed five sacks, 10 QB hits and 29 QB hurries while being slightly below league average as a run blocker. His 2014 season ended in Week 15 due to a partially torn left ACL. LaAdrian is hoping to be ready by Week 1.

Detroit has talent at three positions on their O-line while Reiff needs to make a step forward. This line should be better than league average.

Schedule: Offense

The above chart shows the Lions' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).

This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.

2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.

2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.

2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.

The Lions' running game will have tough matchups in Weeks 3 and 4 as it will battle the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, respectively. They will face only one significantly weak run defense: the Saints. Detroit is scheduled for nine games against teams with above-average pass defenses and four games against weak ones: the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and two matchups with the Chicago Bears.

Offense

Running backs accounted for 113 of the Lions' 365 completions while their tight ends were scantily used; they accounted for just 11.2 percent of the team's completions, the second-lowest total in the league. Wide receivers caught 211 passes for 2,952 yards and 13 touchdowns.

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Over the past four seasons, Stafford has attempted 2,626 passes (656.5 per season). Last year, his 602 attempts actually marked a career low for a full season. The growth of the Lions' defense led to Matthew not needing to carry the team on his back. His offensive line allowed 45 sacks, which was a four-year high and nearly doubled its 2013 total of 23. The key to Stafford's upside is the health of WR Calvin Johnson. Stafford has four straight 4,000-yard seasons, but his passing yards have declined in each of the last three years. He has a 35-42 career record. In 2014, Matthew had four 300-yard games and only two games with at least three TDs. Stafford will continue to throw a ton of passes, and he'll have even more upside if someone behind Johnson and Golden Tate steps up to give him a consistent third option. I'm kind of excited about the rookie Abdullah, whose quickness and pass-catching ability should help the Lions grow on offense. I expect Stafford to throw for 4500-plus yards, and 30 TDs is just about a layup if Calvin is healthy. Matthew is a steady top-10 Fantasy QB option with a great Fantasy playoffs schedule: at St. Louis, at New Orleans, & versus San Francisco.


Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford

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Ameer has a chance to be electric in the Lions' offense if he doesn't fumble his way out of a job. In his four seasons at Nebraska, Abdullah ran for 4,588 yards on 813 carries with 39 TDs. He also caught 73 passes for 690 yards and seven scores. His explosiveness was showcased in four games last year in which he ran for more than 200 yards and scored a total of 10 touchdowns. Abdullah was a top performer among RBs in five different drills at the combine as he flashed his great athletic ability. He lacks size (5 feet 9, 205 pounds), but he has plus strength and electric quickness. The key for the Lions will be getting Abdullah into open space where he can take advantage with his playmaking skills. His acceleration gives him a huge edge in the first 20 yards, although his top-end speed is only league average. Ameer has great vision and enough strength to break tackles. In his 53-game college career, Abdullah has 23 fumbles, 16 of which were lost. Last year, he had four fumbles (two lost) in 286 touches. In his rookie season, the Lions have no choice but to give him 200-plus carries and possibly 40 catches. His quickness and feel for daylight will also help him at the goal line. My early target for him is 1,200 yards from scrimmage and about 200 Fantasy points in a PPR league. He's an RB2 with much more upside. He has an early ADP of 106, but I expect him to be drafted inside of Round 5 during the live drafts in Las Vegas.

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When I look at Bell's stats from 2014, I wonder if he is part of the solution or part of the problem. The Lions gave him 223 carries last year, which led to only 3.9 YPC. He matched that average in 2013. Over the past three years, Joique has registered 139 catches while gaining 9.7 yards per catch. He'll enter 2015 with this backfield's best resume, solid pass-catching skills and possible value at the goal line, but Bell is coming off minor surgeries on both knees and an Achilles tendon. His lack of health this spring may leave him out of shape once training camp beings. His current price point is based on him getting 200-plus touches and having value in the passing game and at the goal line (ADP of 47 as the 18th RB taken). But Joique he has more downside than upside if Ameer proves to be the real deal. I don't think it makes sense to invest in a 29-year-old back with low upside and injury issues. Bell is on my 'avoid' list as I'm looking for a difference maker with upside to be my RB2.


Detroit Lions RB Joique Bell

Injury Status: Out - Knee

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In his two pro campaigns, Theo has offered no value in the running game (29 carries, 76 yards, one TD). His forte is pass-catching thanks to his plus hands. Last year, he caught 34 of his 50 targets for 316 yards and four TDs. While at Notre Dame, Theo caught 114 passes over his last three years for 1,220 yards with eight touchdowns. In his senior season in 2012, Riddick took 226 touches -- including 36 receptions -- for 1,287 total yards and seven TDs. His skill set as a receiver is kind of similar to Abdullah's, but Theo doesn't offer enough power to be a big factor in the ground attack. Pass blocking will be huge for him if he wants to stay on the field. Theo has more explosiveness than Joique Bell, but he can't replace his overall skill set. If Ameer does indeed shine right away, I could see Riddick filling in as his backup. His receiving ability makes him worth rostering in PPR leagues. I think he'll have a 100-touch opportunity.

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Johnson's stats have declined over the past two years as he has battled lingering knee and ankle injuries. Last year, Calvin missed three games and finished two others with fewer than 15 yards because of a high ankle sprain. Still, Johnson has five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and 74 TDs in 119 career games. If you take out those two clunkers, Calvin caught 68 of 125 targets for 1,058 yards and seven scores in 11 games. Over a full season, this comes out to 99 catches, 1,539 yards and 10 TDs. Johnson finished nine games with double-digit targets and five with at least 100 yards last year. His greatness is a given, but his injury risk is starting to eat away at his draft value. He has an early ADP of 14, making him the seventh WR off the board. He can't match the volume of catches from Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham, but he has the most touchdown upside of any wide receiver. He needs to stay healthy, and the Lions' offensive line needs to play better. If you are looking for about 90 catches, 1,500 yards and 12 TDs, Calvin is still your guy.


Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson

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It's not difficult to see why Tate had a breakout season in 2014. After catching 64 balls for 898 yards with the Seahawks in 2013, he amassed 99 catches and 1,331 yards in his first season with Detroit. Having his targets total rise from 99 to 144 certainly helped. In Weeks 7-9 with Calvin on the sidelines, Golden did a great job of stepping up, catching 28 of 41 targets for 414 yards and two touchdowns. In his 13 other games, Tate had only two 100-yard performances and two touchdowns. He did record at least five catches in 12 games, making him a steady player in all formats. He scored double-digit Fantasy points in all but three games last season in PPR leagues. He'll have the advantage of seeing single coverage on most plays when Johnson is on the field, which may lead to more TDs. But Tate also proved that he could be a No. 1 wideout when Johnson is unavailable. Detroit's lack of other viable receiving options at WR and TE will help maintain his value. With the idea that Johnson will be healthy, Tate is probably due for a slight regression. About 90 catches and 1,200 yards with a few more touchdowns sounds about right. He should be a consistent WR2.

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The Lions don't have a clear No. 3 WR. Moore has at least had success at a high level in the NFL, so I'll give him the inside track. Lance had a tough time finding the field in 2014 while being a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers' deep receiving corps. He finished with only 14 catches, 198 yards and two TDs on 26 targets. His numbers have declined in back-to-back years, but an injured hand was clearly an issue for him in 2013 with the Saints. In his career, Moore has three seasons with 65-plus catches and one 1,000-yard year. Lance has 40 TDs in 115 games and has caught 66 percent of his targets. Even with a bump in playing time, his upside is pretty minimal with Johnson, Tate and the running backs drawing most of the targets. He's just a name to watch with more value as a handcuff to Johnson or Tate.

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Jones may be a perfect fit for this offense. He is a slot receiver with very good hands and route-running skills. In his 2013 senior season at Notre Dame, he caught 70 passes for 1,108 yards and nine TDs. He has NFL-average speed for a wide receiver but solid quickness. A sixth-round pick in 2014, Jones missed all of last season as he was slow to recover from shoulder surgery in June. He's definitely a player to watch, but it's tough to believe he will be given enough chances to be Fantasy relevant the season.

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The Lions desperately need another playmaker in their passing game to exploit the single coverage opportunities created by Megatron drawing so much attention from the opposing team's secondary. Ebron will give Detroit big-play ability from the TE position, and he should do very well in the red zone. In 2013 at the University of North Carolina, he caught 62 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns. He is very athletic and has plus speed for his position. Eric runs very good routes, but he struggled to get a handle on the Lions' offense last year. Ebron was on the field for 452 plays compared to 598 for Brandon Pettigrew. In 2014, Ebron caught only 25 of his 47 targets for 248 yards and one TD. He also missed three games with a hamstring injury. But when you see that Pettigrew caught only 10 passes last year despite being on the field for almost 600 plays, you know the path is clear for Eric to have a big 2015 season. The offseason reports have been positive, and the Lions expect him to be the No. 3 option in their passing game, trailing only Johnson and Tate. However, I think he will probably see fewer targets than one of the team's running backs as well. Although Detroit didn't use the tight end much in 2014, there's no doubt Ebron will catch 50 balls for 600-plus yards and about five TDs this season. His ADP slots him as the 23rd TE off the board. He's a TE2 with TE1 upside that will blossom in the near future.


Detroit Lions TE Eric Ebron

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After leading the NFL in scoring in 2013, Matt was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. This led to him being cut by the Broncos. In his 11 games with Detroit, he made 21 of his 26 field goals while drilling three of five from 50 yards or longer. In his career, Prater has made 81.5 percent of his kicks and 24 of 32 attempts from 50 and beyond. Last year, the Lions scored 35 TDs and 25 FGs on their 181 possessions. Matt has a big leg, and Stafford is going to move the ball. Thus, I expect Prater to be a top-10 kicking option in 2015.

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Detroit has five games against teams with weak rushing attacks: the Cardinals, the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and two contests against the Bears. The Lions will have their hands full trying to stop the Seahawks and the 49ers on the ground. They'll face five teams with strong passing attacks: the Broncos, Eagles, Saints and two games versus the Green Bay Packers. The Lions also have seven games against poor aerial attacks: the Raiders, Chiefs, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers and a pair of games against the Minnesota Vikings.

As mentioned in the introduction, the Lions had the league's best run defense last season. They also recorded the eighth-most sacks (42). They finished 13th against the pass, allowing 3,706 yards and 23 TDs. They also grabbed 20 interceptions.

Defensive end Jason Jones is expected to be ready for training camp after undergoing offseason knee surgery. He had five sacks last season and was pretty good against the run. Haloti Ngata is a plus run defender, and Tyrunn Walker was above average against the run and the pass as a situational player in 2014 with the Saints. His game isn't strong enough to be a full-time starter. DT Caraun Reid is a player with upside. His quickness has value in the pass rush, but he needs to add more strength to earn more playing time. DE Ezekiel Ansah, the No. 5 pick in 2013, played at an elite level against the run last year and has notched 15.5 sacks through his first two seasons.

Detroit needs 2014 second-round linebacker Kyle Van Noy to take a step forward. Kyle was on the field for only 54 plays in 2014 following surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle last summer. He should add value to the pass rush while being a plus in pass coverage. Kyle doesn't have elite change-of-direction speed, which hurt him when he's defending the run. LB Stephen Tulloch tore the ACL in his left knee last September and should be ready to go from the start this season. Tulloch is a solid run defender with upside in pass coverage. LB DeAndre Levy is coming off his best season in the NFL by a wide margin. Levy was dominant against the run, although he had just 2.5 sacks in 16 games.

Cornerback Darius Slay played well in pass coverage in his second season after being selected in the second round in 2013. He allowed 59 catches on 105 attempts for 734 yards, three TDs and two INTs. Cornerback Rashean Mathis has been an above-average player in coverage over the past two years. He allowed 55 catches on 90 targets for 558 yards and three TDs in 2014. Safety Glover Quin provides a slight edge in run support and was exceptional in coverage last year, coming down with seven interceptions. Safety James Ihedigbo is a physical player with some value against the run and the pass.

The Lions' run defense has to take a step back with Suh no longer in town. But there is still enough talent around for this defense to be above average in that department. The pass rush will also take a hit as opposing O-lines won't have to double on the inside any more. This may also lead to Detroit's secondary being exposed more often. Detroit will be a borderline top-12 Fantasy defense in 2015.