The Lions' two wins in 2009, and two wins in two seasons, might scare off football pundits from touting them, but Fantasy owners know better. Detroit's got a legit powerhouse in receiver Calvin Johnson and a breakout candidate in Matthew Stafford -- and they've added more firepower.
Through free agency, Detroit improved their receiving corps with Nate Burleson. Through trades, Detroit brought in tight end Tony Scheffler, backup passer Shaun Hill and left guard Rob Sims. And through the draft Detroit bolstered its run game with first-round pick Jahvid Best.
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Those are just the offensive moves. Really, the Lions took a big leap forward in improving their entire team, with the crown jewel of their improvement being rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He's expected to firm up the run defense and even apply pressure on passing downs. He's the rare defensive lineman who could make a big impact right away.
All this talent is expected to keep Johnson and Stafford company -- and productive -- for this season and beyond. Tack on the rehabbing duo of rusher Kevin Smith and second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew, and suddenly there's a little more bite to the Lions than in past seasons. If there ever was a time to be cautiously optimistic about Detroit, it's now.
Sleeper ... Nate Burleson, WR
Stop us if you've heard this one before. Burleson has never established himself as a go-to receiver, but he's proven his worth as a capable No. 2 guy. He signed on with the Lions on the first day of free agency to be the receiver to take some of the spotlight off of Calvin Johnson. This was the job assigned to Bryant Johnson last season, and he failed. Before then, the likes of Roy E. Williams, Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald were his colleagues. Obviously, none of them stood the test of time, so now it's on Burleson to give it a shot. With good enough hands and a good enough deep-ball game in his arsenal, he could put up some numbers. After all, it was just last year he posted his second-best career numbers in receptions (63) and receiving yards (812) in Seattle's anemic offense. Burleson represents good value late.
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Breakout ... Matthew Stafford, QB
Big size, big arm, big offense. Stafford passes all three tests when it comes to becoming a potential Fantasy superstar, and there's no question he'll have a fourth necessary quality: Opportunity. Stafford finished last season banged up, but with a touched-up offensive line and a much improved supporting cast, he should be just fine this year. The Lions' defense might be improved too, but that doesn't mean Stafford won't have to throw to keep his team in games. Here's the best news: You won't have to run out and draft Stafford with an early or even a middle-round pick. He's a backup option, and one you can snare after Round 10. But with a better offense around him and a healthy Calvin Johnson at his disposal, there's potential for him to end the year as a Top 15 -- if not a Top 10 -- Fantasy quarterback.
Bust ... Kevin Smith, RB
We probably don't need to spell this out for you, but the Lions' decision to move up in April's draft and pick rookie Jahvid Best doesn't exactly seem like an endorsement for Smith. So even though Smith beat the odds and returned from a torn ACL sooner than most people expected, he's still going to have to share the ball with Best. Furthermore, Best has received first-team reps and has shined during offseason workouts while Smith did minimal work in drills in the spring and early parts of training camp. Look, Smith can't help that he got hurt, but you're fooling yourself if you believe he'll make a sizable impact this season. Meanwhile, Best will have the platform to shine. The only two ways drafting Smith is acceptable in our eyes is if you do it with a late-round pick or if you drafted Best earlier and wanted to provide some insurance for your running game.
The bad news is that the Lions will likely get outclassed in games against the NFC and AFC East. That might mean losses, but it doesn't necessarily mean low point totals. Ten indoor games help that cause, as do late-season games in Florida -- no bad weather to worry about in December. If there's one Lion who might hiccup to start the season, it's Best since the combination of his inexperience and opponents with decent run defenses could yield less-than-expected results.
Training camp topics
Two young Lions recovering from torn knee ligaments will be watched like hawks this summer. Smith and Pettigrew aren't locks to be heavy contributors by Week 1. Both saw the Lions bring in help at their respective positions, though the "help" could be construed as replacements for at least the first third of the season if not longer. We'll be all over these guys.
It's also going to be worth keeping tabs on how Detroit's newcomers -- Best, Scheffler, Burleson, Suh, cornerback Chris Houston and pass rusher Kyle Vanden Bosch -- fare with their new club. This injection of talent should help the Lions put up more wins in 2010, though that should depend on just how quickly they adapt to their new team and new playbooks.
No one is expecting much from the Lions this season. Then again, not many expected much last year from the Saints -- another formerly hapless franchise -- and they won it all. The Lions might prove that they're on their way.
Matthew Stafford (shoulder, knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Kevin Smith (knee; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Brandon Pettigrew (knee; questionable for the start of training camp).
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