By John Doylemason
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
After taking a step forward in 2011, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Detroit Lions took a major step back in 2012 finishing with a pathetic 4-12 record. However, the Lions provided plenty of fantasy football goodness led by fantasy’s #1 WR Calvin Johnson’s record breaking 1964 receiving yards. As one would expect, the Lions made a large number of changes in the offseason, signing Reggie Bush to be the starting RB (replacing Mikel Leshoure who limped to 3.7 yards per carry), getting rid of troubled WR Titus Young and making plenty of changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Based on the style of their play, the Lions are a very intriguing team to watch. They have ranked in the top 5 for total offense each of the past two years, so there are plenty of fantasy points to be had in 2013. But let’s first look at all the offseason moves before we get into the meat of the issues surrounding this fascinating team.
Added: RB Reggie Bush, DE Jason Jones, S Glover Quin, WR Devin Thomas, DT C.J. Mosley, K David Akers, G Leroy Harris, G Jake Scott, WR Michael Spurlock, RB Montell Owens
Drafted: DE Ezekiel Ansah, CB Darius Slay, OG Larry Warford, DE Devin Taylor, P Sam Martin, WR Corey Fuller, RB Theo Riddick, TE Michael Williams, LB Brandon Hepburn
Lost: WR Titus Young, G Stephen Peterman, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, K Jason Hanson, CB Lionel Smith, OT Gosder Cherilus, CB Drayton Florence, DT Sammie Lee Hill, CB Kevin Barnes, LB Justin Durant, G Stephen Pederman, DE Cliff Avril, DE Lawrence Jackson, OT Jeff Backus, RB Stefan Logan
One Up: Matt Stafford, QB – I really like Matt Stafford and his situation in 2013. After breaking out by throwing just over 5000 yards and 41 TDs in 2011, he still racked up the yardage in 2012, but only found the end zone 20 times (finishing as the 10th best fantasy QB). The offensive line is a big concern as they lost stud pass blocker Gosder Cherilus to the Colts and veteran Jeff Baccus retired. But, with Calvin Johnson at his disposal, competition at the WR2 spot, two talented TEs, and a PPR superstar in Reggie Bush, Stafford has the pieces offensively to make some fantasy magic. The run game was hardly a threat last season, so Reggie Bush as the lead back instead of Mikel Leshoure can only help open up the passing game. However, the big reason Stafford will be better in 2013 is those 20 TD he threw last year. While the 41 TDs he threw in 2011 is unlikely to repeat anytime soon, incredible stats like Calvin Johnson being tackled at the 1 yard line six times last year signal that Stafford is bound to bounce back in 2013. Look for him to come near or to surpass 5000 yards for the third year in a row and approximately 30 TDs, which would once again make him a potent QB in fantasy.
One Down: Tony Scheffler, TE – With Brandon Pettigrew locked in at the number one spot and three possible targets at wide receiver, the signing of Reggie Bush all but gonged doom for the veteran. The draft signing of run blocking TE Michael Williams out of Alabama (as well as undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria) officially puts Tony on notice. In two TE formations, the Lions will likely run the ball and play to Pettigrew and Williams strengths as tremendous blockers. The youth movement and a bevy of talent to will crowd out Scheffler in 2013. Unless Pettigrew goes down, Tony’s numbers are almost certain to fall.
1. Can Megatron repeat last year’s numbers? Can anyone come close to him for fantasy’s #1 WR spot?
Ding dong the curse is dead! Which old curse? The Madden Curse!
He did it! We are free! And with Barry Sanders going to be on the cover this year it is safe to say the rest of the NFL elite are safe once again. I’ll admit that I voted Calvin Johnson to the cover because one of my buddies has him on his roster year after year in our keeper league. Well, that didn’t work out so well!
Calvin Johnson is a machine. He’s the most physically gifted WR in the league combining size, speed and strength that outshines every other WR in the NFL. But, in 2012 he took his game to a whole new level. He was virtually unguardable, and Matt Stafford just kept feeding him the ball, targeting him a league leading 205 times despite being constantly double and even triple teamed. Finishing with 122 receptions and 1964 yards, he led the league by 366 yards or almost 23 yards per game! Even more amazing is that Megatron caught all those passes playing with broken fingers! Although he only finished 4 points above Brandon Marshall as the #1 fantasy WR, keep in mind that as with Stafford, Calvin Johnson got extremely unlucky in the TD department, so expect his 5 TDs to at least double in 2013.
Detroit threw more passes that any other team in the NFL in 2012 (nearly 60 more attempts than the second ranked Saints). Even with a bolstered backfield with Reggie Bush and a healthy WR corps, I do not perceive those attempts falling too far below 700 due to scheme. However, expect the attempts to be divided up a little more evenly then they were in 2012 when the Lions WRs Titus Young, Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson all spent significant time in the trainers room, leaving Megatron as the only viable outside threat. Having them all healthy in 2013 may lead to a few less targets, but also he should have a lot more room to operate with other offensive threats requiring defensive attention.
While there are a bunch of other wide receivers that pose a threat to Calvin Johnson as the #1 WR, each of them come with their warts. Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas or even Larry Fitzgerald have a shot to push Megatron, but none of them have the ceiling or even the floor of a guy like Megatron. He has been the top WR now for 2 straight years (would have been three if he didn’t miss two games in 2010) and shows no signs of letting up! Calvin Johnson has it in the bag in 2013. Hail to the King, baby.
2. Between Bush, Bell and Leshoure, how are the carries divided up? Are any of them fantasy starters?
Be forewarned, just because Reggie Bush joined the Lions does not mean the Lions will have a prolific run game. When is the last time the Lions even had a 1000 yard rusher at the running back position? If you guessed Kevin Jones in 2004, ding ding ding, you win! The Lions have been in the bottom 10 in rushing offense every single year since then, so don’t expect them to suddenly turn into a rushing powerhouse.
Schwartz will have a running back competition, but we all know who will win. Reggie Bush got the big contract over the off-season, and he’ll be named the starting back. He has leagues more talent than Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell. He still has his burst and agility that made me curse his name year after year (Go Cal) and his work ethic has staunchly improved over his short career in the league.
While Reggie has gained some strength and size over the years, I do not believe he has the body to withstand running between the tackles for a full season. His paychecks are earned going outside the tackles and catching passes. In pass protection, his game has stepped up immensely over the last seven seasons and that will allow him to stay on the field. He has the endurance, intelligence, and athletic ability to be a 3-down back but the wear and tear of the season may leave Schwartz to dial-up other backs in order to keep Bush fresh. It would surprise me to see Bush’s attempts fluctuate too much from the 228 rushes he had last year, as Schwartz maintains a very pass friendly offense.
Although Bush only snagged the ball 35 times last fall, his experience in New Orleans shows he can be a pass catching machine (88 receptions in 2006). It is uncertain how many passes will trickle down from Calvin Johnson to Reggie Bush, but it would be shocking if Bush catches less than 70 passes. Mikel Leshoure (34 receptions in 2012) and Joique Bell (52 receptions in 2012) will not get anywhere near those numbers in 2013.
Mikel Leshoure stands the most to lose next fall. If healthy, he seems to have the edge on Bell as a change of pace and goal line back, but with the Lions offensive line losing key pieces and the offense continuing to revolve around the passing game, it’s hard to expect Leshoure being valuable as even a flex option as long as Bush is healthy. Mikel and his plodding 3.7 yards per carry does not have the ability to usurp Bush for playing time in that regard. Bell, though he ran for 5.1 yards per carry last year and was an effective pass catching third down back, has talked about moving to kickoffs to replace the departed Stefan Logan just to be able to remain on the roster. As a running back, he has a chance to win the #2 job since he’s a more versatile back than Leshoure. It will be a situation to watch closely in the preseason, but expect Leshoure to win the job, leaving Bell with a small role in the offense.
If we go strictly by math it; would seem Bush would be the lead back and used heavily in passing situations to suit his talents with Bell and Leshoure fighting each other for the scraps. No one can predict how training camp will go, but it is safe to assume (based on Bush’s contract and talent), that he will be getting 200+ carries and 70+ receptions as the Lion’s lead back. Very worthy of a #2 RB (borderline RB#1 in PPR leagues).
3. Can Ryan Broyles run with the WR2 spot? Who steps up in this high-volume pass attack?
Wow, did I strike out last year thinking that Titus Young would the #1 sleeper WR. His touchdown to arrest ratio is really quite impressive though. Luckily for the Lions, the injury bug did not hit the TE corps hard as Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler combined for 101 grabs, 1071 yards, and 4 TDs. Calvin Johnson locks down the majority of the targets in the offense, but as much as the Lions chuck it, there is room for another valuable fantasy WR in that offense. So, who will take the WR2 spot?
Ryan Broyles definitely has the talent to become a contributing member of the Lions offense but that will depend on his ability to grasp the full playbook and his ability to come back healthy after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. With 22 receptions for 310 yards and 2 TDs in 10 games last year, Broyles did not live up to his second round billing. However, Broyles caught an NCAA record 349 passes totalling 45 TDs and 4586 yards over his career in college. Especially coming off an ACL injury, my guess is Schwartz will keep Broyles in the slot. If he had all offseason to practice and get up to speed, I would have expected him to start outside Calvin Johnson in 2013, however with his lack of practice time, keeping him in the slot will allow him to thrive in 2013.
Nate Burleson had his 2012 season cut short with a nasty broken leg in Week 7. While not quite 100%, the veteran is progressing well and looks to continue the waves he made in 2011 and early 2012. His impact in the passing game will be notable as defenses continue to roll coverage towards Calvin Johnson leaving Nate in favorable matchups. Also a threat in the run game, Nate had 8 rushes in his truncated season. At 31 years old, Burleson is on the downswing of his career, but he is definitely still an integral factor in the Lions offensive equation. If he can see around 5 receptions per game and the occasional rushing attempt, he’ll be a factor. He will only be valuable in fantasy in deeper leagues or PPR leagues, but I expect him to outshine Broyles in both receptions and yardage by season’s end.
The Lions once again look amazing on paper, but whether they will improve in 2013 remains to be seen. They’ve addressed offensive line holes and signed Reggie Bush to shore up the run game and provided Stafford another target for the incredible passing onslaught to come. Competition at the WR2 spot and TE2 spot will heat up as the youth-versus-veteran battle rages through the summer; winner- Matthew Stafford. Calvin Johnson is primed for another incredible year as the scheme will continue to feature the best wide receiver in the league. If the defensive secondary can stop doing its best colander impression, the Lions may just have a shot at the playoffs. For fantasy, you’ll definitely want Calvin and Stafford. The duo will look to improve their TD totals from 2012 and all signs point in a positive direction!