Juggernaut Index No. 22: The Detroit Lions

Scott Pianowski

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. We're interested in yards and points here. We began at No. 32, the NFL's least useful franchise (Oakland), and we're working our way toward the elite teams. These ranks are astonishingly accurate and highly collectible. Please enjoy them responsibly.

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22. Detroit Lions

It’s probably a modest surprise to some that it took us this long to get to the Lions, but let’s give another nod to the fact that we’re discussing fantasy value here, not real-life team value. And it wouldn’t be the shock of the century if new head coach Jim Schwartz transformed last year’s winless Lions into a competitive outfit this time around. Keep in mind the Dolphins and Falcons went from pathetic (2007) to playoff-bound (2008) in just one season. No one’s expecting Detroit to really contend for a playoff spot, of course, but this team should be significantly improved.

The Lions don’t have a lot of fantasy options worth considering, but the two viable players here are big-ticket items: Receiver Calvin Johnson(notes) and running back Kevin Smith(notes). And we’re confident both players will thrive under new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Johnson’s production on this sad-sack team last year almost defies explanation. The Lions didn’t have any other viable threats on the outside – no other receiver had more than 35 catches – and the play from quarterbacks Jon Kitna(notes), Dan Orlovsky(notes) and Daunte Culpepper(notes) was consistently dreadful. Johnson faced rolled coverage from the moment he stepped out of the tunnel, yet somehow he collected 1,331 yards and 12 TDs, amazing numbers given the circumstance (the rest of the roster went for 1,968 receiving yards and six touchdown catches, combined). Johnson still has room for improvement as he enters his third year, but he might never produce a Houdini act quite like what we saw in 2008.

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The Linehan appointment figures to be Megatron-friendly. During Linehan’s coordinator career (let’s forget the St. Louis years ever happened) he’s consistently shown that he’ll throw – no, force – the ball to his best receiving target. Randy Moss(notes) got his busiest work when he was tied to Linehan in Minnesota, and Chris Chambers(notes) fooled us into thinking he was a special talent during Linehan’s Miami stint. If Johnson has any kind of a falloff this year, it won’t be because of the game plan. We’re endorsing Johnson as an early second-round pick this year (overall slot No. 16), and that’s where his ADP stands right now as well.

That doesn’t mean Johnson doesn’t offer downside, of course. The Lions still have plenty of issues at quarterback – Culpepper, while plenty experienced in Linehan’s scheme, is clearly on the last legs of his career, and No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford(notes) can’t be expected to save the franchise overnight. And he’s not going to get much help from his supporting cast on the outside.

The Lions still haven’t added a viable No. 2 receiver and you can probably ignore the rest of their WR depth chart on draft day. Bryant Johnson(notes) has 12 measly TD catches over a disappointing six-year career. He’s also coming off a “golf-cart injury” that the club is being vague about (Schwartz comes from the Jeff Fisher coaching tree, after all). Keary Colbert(notes) hasn’t done a thing since his respectable rookie season in 2004. Dennis Northcutt(notes) doesn’t have the body and skill set to be more than a No. 3-4 receiver, but the Lions might need to press him into a bigger role than that.

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Like Calvin Johnson, Kevin Smith is going to cost you a pretty penny on draft day; he’s projecting to be a late-second or early-third round pick in most drafts. Smith doesn’t have any one skill that leaps off the page but he’s versatile, competitive, durable and smart. He somehow cobbled 4.1 yards a carry last year and he got better as the season wore on (83.9 rushing YPG in the second half). He proved to be powerful and decisive on short-yardage work and he was capable as a receiver (39 receptions).

Linehan likes to throw to his backs liberally, so Smith has a shot at 50 or more grabs this time around. There’s room for profit here.

Speedy Maurice Morris(notes) signed on to be the change of pace back. He’ll deserve 7-10 touches per week, but he’s not going to carry fantasy value in basic leagues unless something happens to Smith.

Detroit Breakdown, Motor City Shakedown: We glossed over the quarterbacks above because there’s no one you’ll want to bother drafting, Calvin Johnson or no Calvin Johnson. The team is a long way from determining a starter - Culpepper, Stafford and Drew Stanton(notes) are all getting heavy reps early in camp. Our best guess is that Culpepper will start the year, then hand off to Stafford for some development time around the middle of the season . . . Detroit got a good one with its second first-round pick in the draft - everyone has wonderful things to say about tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes) out of Oklahoma State. Pettigrew’s blocking and intelligence should get him on the field right away and he has the size to be a legitimate red-zone target, but keep in mind he didn’t have a single spike over 42 catches last year at OSU . . . Jason Hanson’s(notes) 2008 fantasy season should have been one for the ages - he was a perfect 14-for-14 on field goals 40 yards and up, including an amazing 8-for-8 from 50-plus. Alas, the Detroit offense only gave Hanson 48 scoring chances all year (26 XP, 22 FGA), and that’s why he finished with a scant 88 points. You shouldn’t bother drafting Hanson this year but he’s worth considering as a mid-season pickup if the Lions take a step up in class; keep in mind Detroit plays most of its schedule indoors (10 games in all) . . . Detroit’s defense gives the long-suffering Lions fans reason for hope, honest. Schwartz built his reputation on that side of the ball of course, and there are some playmakers in the linebacking corps, most notably up-and-comer Ernie Sims(notes) and free-agent signee Julian Peterson(notes).

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Earlier Juggernaut posts: 32) Oakland, 31) Cleveland, 30) St. Louis, 29) Miami, 28) NY Jets, 27) Baltimore, 26) Washington, 25) San Francisco, 24) Tampa Bay, 23) Kansas City.

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