Juggernaut Index, No. 25: The Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions are coming off an odd year and attempting to replace an irreplaceable offensive weapon. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Detroit is coming off a Weird year, attempting to replace an irreplaceable offensive weapon. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here, we concern ourselves with a franchise’s likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we’re focused on yards and points. As always, we’re beginning with the league’s least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

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Detroit’s offense was among the most lopsided in the NFL last year, ranking dead-last in rushing (83.4 YPG) and ninth in passing (263.3). Entering 2016, the Lions have not made a significant addition to their backfield, but they suffered a massive loss in the receiving corps with the retirement of Calvin Johnson, an all-time talent and the team’s offensive centerpiece over the past nine seasons. So unless several players are ready to make significant leaps for Detroit, it’s difficult to see how the year ahead can possibly be better than last season, which ended with a middle-of-the-pack finish.

Johnson may have been a mild disappointment to anyone who drafted him in 2015, yet he still finished with 88 catches for 1214 yards and nine scores, ranking as a top-10 fantasy receiver for the sixth time in eight years. He was clearly past his peak, yet he still routinely tilted coverage in his direction and roasted opposing corners in one-on-one matchups — check the Eagles tape for details. Calvin contorted defenses in ways that his replacement, Marvin Jones, will not. When a nightmare coverage assignment like Megatron is removed from the on-field mix, life gets a bit more challenging for all remaining skill players.

Matthew Stafford, not at his best. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford, not at his best. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Jones figures to see a huge share of the 150 pass attempts that went ‘Tron’s way last season, which makes him a receiver of interest for fantasy purposes. He’s a big target (though not Calvin-sized) with a 10-touchdown season on his resume, and he was certainly paid like a high-volume receiver ($40M/5Y). He’s been selected just inside the top-100 in early drafts (ADP 94.8), but he has a clear shot at a top-25 positional finish in a healthy season. He’s definitely a bargain at the moment. Golden Tate is generally taken 50 spots ahead of Jones, and I’ll be surprised if the year-end numbers justify that draft gap. Tate was a perfectly fine player to own in full-PPR formats last season, but he was used primarily as a short-range weapon. Tate converted his 90 receptions into just 813 yards and six spikes. His average gain of 9.0 yards per catch was topped by pretty much every NFL receiver and a bunch of running backs, including James Starks, Charles Sims and James White. Not great. Still, he hauled in 99 balls for 1331 yards in 2014, with five 100-yard performances included, so we know he’s capable of producing excellent numbers.

Third-year wideout T.J. Jones emerged as a buzzy player during OTAs, but it’s tough to imagine him seeing enough targets to make a serious fantasy splash. He enters camp battling a collection of unspectacular vets — Jeremy Kerley, Andre Roberts, Andre Caldwell — for position in Detroit’s receiving hierarchy. If this team is going to field another top-10 passing offense, then tight end Eric Ebron is going to need to deliver a breakout. Ebron was drafted tenth overall by the Lions back in 2014, so expectations are relatively high as he begins his third pro campaign. He’s a terrific athlete who delivered a few nice moments last season (47-537-5), but injuries and drops have been issues for him. At Ebron’s current ADP (154.9, TE18), however, he offers plenty of profit potential. Detroit desperately needs him to thrive as a red-zone target in the post-Megatron era, and an uptick in workload is guaranteed.

For obvious reasons, the player most impacted by Calvin’s departure is Matthew Stafford, a volume passer coming off a sneaky-useful season. Stafford posted by far the highest completion percentage of his career last year, connecting on 67.2 percent of his throws for 4262 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 picks. All those easy, quick-hit connections with Tate and Theo Riddick enhanced Stafford’s rating (97.0) and accuracy, but he remained fairly ordinary in terms of yards per attempt. In fact, his 7.20 Y/A last season ranked only No. 20 in the league, placing him alongside such luminaries as Teddy Bridgewater (7.23), Blaine Gabbert (7.20) and Ryan Tannehill (7.18). Stafford hasn’t experienced life in the NFL without an elite, superhero-level receiving threat, so we’ll learn a little something about him in 2016. He has a cannon arm and a reckless streak, which makes him fun to watch but maddening to depend upon, whether you’re a Lions fan or a fantasy owner. I’ve got no great quarrel with Stafford’s early ADP (134.8, QB19), which reflects both his limitations and his diminished supporting cast.

Ameer Abdullah makes a house call. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Ameer Abdullah makes a house call. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Running back Ameer Abdullah did not exactly shine in his first pro season, but he also wasn’t a complete bust (at least in reality. In fantasy he was wildly over-drafted). Abdullah finished with 597 rushing yards on 143 carries last year, gaining 4.2 per attempt, and he added 25 catches for 183 yards. These are respectable numbers — unless you took the kid in Round 5 of your hometown league.

Abdullah is a near-lock to lead Detroit’s backfield in touches in 2016 assuming good health, and he’ll surely open the season as the team’s lead runner. He did his best running in the second half of his rookie season, after Jim Bob Cooter was elevated to OC, averaging 4.7 YPC over his final eight games. Like various other Lions, Abdullah is well-priced in early drafts (ADP 67.7, RB29). He should be a prime target for the ZeroRB crowd. Zach Zenner should have a short-yardage/vulture role, which is a minor annoyance. Detroit is also kicking the tires on post-injury Stevan Ridley, but he’s less explosive and just as fumbly as Abdullah, so don’t fret about him.

Riddick was a monster in PPR formats last year, finishing second among all players at his position in receptions (80), targets (99) and receiving yards (697). He’s really been a miserable runner over his three NFL seasons, however, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry (3.1 last year). I can’t recommend him in standard-scoring leagues. But if you play in a format that rewards players for the simple act of catching short throws, go get him.

Detroit’s defense was a middle-tier group last year, generating just 19 turnovers and ranking No. 18 in total yards allowed (349.6 YPG). The Lions will open the 2016 season at Indianapolis and travel to Green Bay in Week 3, so it’s tough to build a case to draft this D/ST in a fantasy league of traditional size. If you absolutely need to own a Detroit IDP, Ziggy Ansah is the guy, coming off a 14.5-sack season.

2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 22.4 (17)
Pass YPG – 263.3 (9)
Rush YPG – 83.4 (32)
Yards per play – 5.4 (20)
Plays per game – 64.4 (16)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland, 31) San Francisco, 30) Philadelphia, 29) Baltimore, 28) Tennessee, 27) Los Angeles, 26) Miami