The words "optimistic" and "Detroit Lions" haven't been used together since Barry Sanders was running around the Pontiac Silverdome (and even then ...). But heading into 2011, not only are Fantasy owners optimistic that the Lions will produce some solid roster choices, but Lions fans are optimistic that their team can contend for a playoff berth.
Offensively, the team is loaded. You already know about Calvin Johnson and how he can turn quarterbacks like Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton into legit Fantasy considerations. Nate Burleson is entrenched as their second option, and the addition of rookie Titus Young complements both receivers and forces defenses to either neglect one receiver to cover the others or play deep. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew and backup Tony Scheffler only make the weapons in the pass game more threatening.
The run game got an upgrade with the addition of second-round pick Mikel Leshoure. Last year the Lions were abysmal in short-yardage situations, so Leshoure should improve that aspect of the run game while giving the team a change-of-pace back behind starter Jahvid Best. The two should make for a good tandem and in turn should ensure that they aren't running on fumes with backups during the season.
But it's the guy the Lions want under center for 16 games that will make the most difference. Matthew Stafford enters 2011 with higher expectations than what he had in 2010 thanks to all of Detroit's personnel improvements. After playing just nine and a half quarters last season, showing one full game of his golden potential against the Redskins (four touchdowns), everyone wants to see what he can do over a full season. The onus will be on him to stay upright and avoid getting his shoulder slammed into the turf like he did twice last season.
The Lions also made big improvements defensively, stealing defensive tackle Nick Fairley with their first-round pick and signing veteran safety Erik Coleman before the labor stoppage. Coleman will improve a secondary that has some talent but got battered at points last year. The run defense, even with Ndamukong Suh on the inside line, was worse, so Fairley working next to Suh should slam rushers and potentially give the Lions the type of "front two teeth" that the Vikings had for years with Kevin and Pat Williams.
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Bounce-back candidate ... Matthew Stafford, QB
Of course Stafford is a bounce-back candidate, if not one of the ultimate sleepers for 2011. You already know the bad news: Stafford might have shoulders made of glass. And you already know the good news: Stafford, when given the chance to run this offense as it stands now, should produce at least 200 yards and two touchdowns with his eyes shut. His receiving corps is talented, his run game should warrant attention from the defense while also providing an outlet for some cheap stats and his offensive line is just good enough. Throw in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who did a great job last year given the personnel challenges he had, and there's a lot of hope for a 4,000-yard, 25-touchdown season from Stafford. He's a high-risk, high-reward pick that Fantasy owners should be on the lookout for starting in Round 8.
Impact rookie ... Mikel Leshoure, RB
Everyone will flock to rookie rushers like Mark Ingram and Daniel Thomas in drafts, but if Leshoure catches some breaks in Motown he could be just as productive. For now, he's the backup behind Jahvid Best, but we saw Best last about two and a half games last season before succumbing to a turf toe injury. And that happened a year after a concussion KO'd his college career. Best is injury prone and might best serve the Lions as a passing downs back. Leshoure, meanwhile, is the prototype for a rushing downs back and could probably land that role (and the goal-line touchdowns that come with it). He's a superb choice to draft beginning in Round 8 -- expect his name to fly off the board as soon as fellow rookie Ryan Williams gets selected.
Keeper-league target ... Titus Young, WR
A few years back the Lions drafted speedy receiver Derrick Williams with the hope that he'd cause mayhem from the slot. But Williams never matched expectations. Young now inherits that opportunity, and the former Boise State star has the pedigree to not only earn that role but play in it often from the get-go. He's not a big guy but he does have solid hands and a lot of experience -- 150 receptions over his last two years in school for more than 2,200 yards. Imagine the dilemma defensive coordinators will have when they already have to account for Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew, then deal with this burner when he comes on the field. The only issue here is that it might take Young a few years to really become productive in his role. Furthermore, his ability to eventually take the No. 2 spot opposite Megatron is not a lock considering he'll see tougher coverage in that role and might not be as productive. Time will tell on Young, but as a keeper-league target, owners should be cool with that. He's not bad as a late-round pick in deeper seasonal drafts, either.
The schedule tempers the upside the Lions offer Fantasy fans -- it starts off alright but there's a four-game stretch where they take on four of the league's better pass rushers, and we all know what happens when Matthew Stafford takes on an aggressive defensive front. There are also a number of stout run defenses that await the Lions after their soft start against the Bucs and Chiefs. Most Fantasy owners catch a break in that the Lions play at Green Bay in Week 17, which helps those of us who don't play into the final week of the season. But they host the Packers in Week 12, kicking off a tricky end to the year. It's not the worst schedule in the world, and playing 11 games indoors will go a long way.
Training camp topics
We talked earlier about Mikel Leshoure being an impact rookie and how it might simply be a waiting game until Jahvid Best misses playing time before he explodes. Well, Best needs to show in training camp that he's worthy of starting and holding Leshoure to under a dozen touches per game. Likewise, Leshoure needs to take advantage of his time to prove that he can be the bell cow the Lions drafted him to be. The competition at running back should be more fun to watch than what we had from Detroit at the position last summer.
Normally when a quarterback comes off of shoulder surgery, people will gawk at and dissect the velocity and accuracy of his passes. But Stafford's thrown a good amount this offseason and all accounts say he hasn't lost any zip on his ball. Accuracy has been an issue for Stafford (54.5 pct. over 13 games), and that's something that needs improvement.
Otherwise, it's all about the Lions meeting their potential on both sides of the ball. If they can reach it, the results should be exciting.
Matthew Stafford (shoulder; probable for the start of training camp) ... Nate Burleson (elbow; probable for the start of training camp) ... Jason Hanson (knee; probable for the start of training camp).
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