Things did not exactly end well for the Detroit Lions last season. The team lost its last eight games, often in improbable and excruciating fashion. In Weeks 11-13, the Lions managed to lose three straight home games in which they held leads inside the final 2 minutes of regulation. That ain't easy.
Detroit had nine single-digit losses last season, dropping five of those games by margins of four points or less. They lost a game when the head coach threw an illegal challenge flag, following a brutal non-call. They lost another game because they botched an opportunity to kick a chip-shot OT field goal on fourth down. The Lions went 0-6 within the division last season and 2-6 at Ford Field, posting the worst home record in the NFC.
Without piling on any further, let's simply say that 2012 was a messy year for this franchise, loaded with near-misses.
Even the incomparable Calvin Johnson, in the midst of an all-time season, had a weird habit of not quite breaking the plane when he got himself near the goal line. Johnson was tackled at the 1-yard line five times last year, and he was brought down inside the 5 on eight separate occasions. So while Megatron managed to establish a new NFL record for single-season receiving yardage, his fantasy production actually dipped by nearly 40 points in standard leagues from 2011 to 2012.
Calvin still remains in a tier of one at his position, of course. It's almost impossible to build a case for taking any other receiver ahead of him, regardless of your scoring system. (OK, I suppose if you're the sort of fantasy owner likes to take partial-season stats and extrapolate, then maybe you're looking at Dez's second-half and projecting 1700 yards and 20 touchdowns. But you're grossly oversimplifying the process of forecasting.) Johnson has finished as fantasy's top-scoring receiver in each of the past two seasons, and he's ranked in the top-8 in four of the past five years. He's reliably brilliant, blessed with superhero-level size and athleticism. 'Tron should be drafted in the first-half of the first round in basically all leagues.
In a typical year, the player who leads the NFL in targets will see 170-180 balls. Last season, Johnson saw 204. That's just an absurd number — tough to wrap your head around, until you remember that Matthew Stafford put the ball in the air 727 times, obliterating the record for attempts.
Stafford possesses top-of-the-charts arm strength, but for every wow throw he makes, there's at least one yikes throw. He was hardly a model of efficiency last year, completing 59.8 percent of his passes (down from 63.5) and gaining just 6.8 yards per attempt (down from 7.6). He finished with only 20 passing touchdowns after delivering 41 the season before.
Still, volume goes a long way in fantasy. Stafford clearly remains a starting-caliber quarterback in our game, a terrific value pick at his current Yahoo! ADP (63.2). The guy owns two of the all-time top-7 passing yardage seasons, he directs an offense that averages over 40 attempts per game, and he has Earth's most dominant receiver at his disposal. As long as Stafford remains healthy, he'll have a difficult time avoiding the top-10 at his position. Bad luck certainly played a role in Stafford's low TD total last year, as 'Tron wasn't the only Detroit wideout who was regularly tripped up near the end zone. Last season, Lions receivers were tackled inside the 5-yard line a league-high 23 times.
Detroit's receiving corps is full of familiar faces, most of them low-ceiling fantasy options: Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Mike Thomas, et al. Pettigrew's value crashed last year, as he gave us a disappointing 59-567-3 season after back-to-back 700-yard campaigns. Drops were one issue (9), and a dip in targets didn't help, either (126 to 102). Pettigrew is a member of the best-shape-of-his-life club, according to camp reports, so we'll see if that makes a difference. He doesn't need to be owned in leagues of standard size, but a small bounce-back wouldn't surprise.
Ryan Broyles's recovery from a late-season ACL tear — his second such injury within a 13-month period — has really been one of the more impressive and under-discussed NFL stories of camp season. Broyles tore the ligament on December 2, 2012, yet he participated in mini-camp just six months later. This kid set the FBS career receptions record at Oklahoma (349), so he has the potential to be a PPR machine. Keep him in your plans as an end-game flier.
The most significant offseason addition to the Lions offense, without question, was running back Reggie Bush, a guy coming off back-to-back quality seasons in Miami. Bush has re-written his scouting report over the past two years, shedding a few of his negative Saints-era tendencies and missing just one game due to injury.
If you're wondering how Reggie will be used in Detroit, check the film from the team's preseason opener, a 26-17 win over the Jets. Bush lined up at every possible spot. On the team's opening series, we first saw him in a two-back shotgun set, then as a single back behind Stafford, and then he was split out wide...
That's Bush at the bottom of the frame, causing Jets DBs to frantically flap their arms. From that formation, the Lions hit Calvin in the slot for an easy 8-yard gain. Detroit went with an empty backfield on the next play, with Reggie in the slot.
So it seems likely that Bush will be utilized everywhere, stressing opposing defenses in multiple ways. He's a strong candidate to catch 70-plus passes and gain 1300-plus scrimmage yards. I'm plenty bullish. Let's just hope he escapes the preseason without getting dinged.
Mikel Leshoure remains in the team picture, too, probably in a short-yardage role (because there is no long-yardage aspect to Mikel's game). Leshoure certainly didn't mind seeing all those Lions receivers tackled within inches of the goal line last season; he scored six touchdowns on runs of two yards or less. Joique Bell was this team's most impressive runner last year (5.0 YPC), and he's the guy I'd want in the event of a Bush malfunction. Notre Dame rookie Theo Riddick has made some noise in camp, but he's just a guy fighting for depth chart position at the moment.
The Lions defense ranked 27th in points-allowed last season (27.3), and they rarely made big plays. They intercepted only 11 balls, forced just nine fumbles, and didn't record a defensive TD. But this team's D-line features three dudes who were early first-round draft picks (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah), so you'd like to think they could blow up a fair number of plays this season. The camp reports have been encouraging thus far. If safety Louis Delmas can give us something close to a full season, perhaps this secondary can be less ordinary. For now, you have to think of the Detroit D/ST as a stream-only fantasy option, not approved for regular use.
2012 team stats: 23.3 points per game (17), 321.2 passing yards per game (2), 100.8 rushing yards per game (23)
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