Back in the day when the Lions would change coaching staffs it would mean a beleaguered fan base would have to exercise patience. That's because the team usually stunk and needed a total roster rehaul, keeping them from being competitive for the division crown, much less a Super Bowl run. But that's not the case this time around for the Lions -- the team punted on head coach Jim Schwartz and brought in the more even-keeled -- and successful -- Jim Caldwell.
And now the Lions are roaring. Or at least the fan base is optimistic the team can win something soon.
Caldwell is best known as Peyton Manning's former quarterbacks coach, a gig he parlayed into the Colts' head coach when Tony Dungy retired. He spent seven years in Indy before finding himself coordinating the Ravens offense en route to their Super Bowl XLVII title. And though Caldwell doesn't have a ton of experience calling plays, he does have plenty of football experience with championship runs to boot.
Joining Caldwell are offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (a member of that Lombardi family, by the way) and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Both hires have the potential to be great -- Lombardi is the former quarterbacks coach of the Saints and is installing a version of the Saints' explosive offense. Austin joins the Lions from Baltimore, where he coached up the secondary there and Arizona and Seattle before that. If there's a weak spot in the Lions defense it's in the secondary, so Austin should be up to the task.
Coaches were just the beginning of new faces in Motown as the Lions made splashes in free agency and the draft. Safety James Ihedigbo followed Austin to Detroit to roam at safety and Kyle Van Noy was added to the linebacker corps via a second-round pick. Offensively Detroit snared Golden Tate away from Seattle and spent their first-round pick -- 10th overall -- on tight end Eric Ebron. Both additions should stretch defenses and force them to make tough decisions on who to cover, and subsequently, the days of double- and triple-teaming Calvin Johnson should be few and far between.
Most importantly, the new coaching staff has worked with Matthew Stafford on his footwork and mechanics, issues that contributed to the Lions' 1-6 meltdown to end last season. By giving him new weapons in a new offense that he'll be comfortable in, and by improving a defense to help slow down opponents, the Lions actually have enough to make a run at a playoff berth ... or at the very least help Fantasy owners make a run at a playoff berth in their leagues.
Breakout ... Golden Tate
There's debate that Tate has already broken out -- he set career-highs in receptions (64) and yards (898) last season. But the bet is that Tate improves on those numbers in 2014 while also pumping up his touchdown totals beyond the five he had last season. Tate's not a bad receiver at all -- over the last two years he's caught 65.5 percent of his targets and has made a play for 20-plus yards on 22 percent of his receptions. Putting a guy like that in an offense where coverage will either be pushed way back to not allow the big play or tilted toward Calvin Johnson should yield some really good numbers, particularly since the Lions will throw a lot. Tate only could wish the Seahawks would have been like that in his first four seasons. He'll be set free this season and is worth a pick between Round 5 and 6.
Late-round pick & long-term keeper ... Eric Ebron
Ebron is slated to play the role of Jimmy Graham in the Lions offense. What's not to like about that? Ebron is three inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Graham but can basically cause the same kind of mismatches that Graham has been creating for years. Ebron caught 112 passes for 1,805 yards with eight scores over 35 games at North Carolina -- numbers that don't make your jaw drop but certainly better than what Graham did in college (Graham was better known for his basketball skills). Where Ebron wins for Fantasy owners is his draft price tag in relation to his potential. Anytime we lump in someone with Graham we're obviously setting the bar high, but the risk involved in taking Ebron is low -- like Round 10 low. So you could consider a decent tight end like Martellus Bennett or Heath Miller or you could roll the dice on Ebron and start the season with him as your tight end. Worst-case scenario? You punt on him if he gets off to a cold start and pick up one of those decent tight ends off waivers. Obviously in a keeper league Ebron will go much higher and is a Top 5 kind of pick in rookie-only drafts.
Best QB value in the draft ... Matthew Stafford
|Reggie Bush||277 (223 car., 54 rec.)||33.9%|
|Joique Bell||219 (166 car., 53 rec.)||26.8%|
|Calvin Johnson||84 rec.||10.3%|
|Brandon Pettigrew||41 rec.||5.0%|
|Nate Burleson||41 (39 rec., 2 car.)||5.0%|
|Kris Durham||38 rec.||4.7%|
And it's because of the two aforementioned players joining forces with Calvin Johnson and a running back corps that catches a bunch of passes that puts Stafford in incredibly good company. A lot of Fantasy owners remember Stafford's lousy play over the last four weeks of the season and refuse to trust him. But before those final four games he had posted 20-plus Fantasy points in 10 of 12 matchups, one of only three quarterbacks last season to have double digits in 20-point games. He averaged 24.2 Fantasy points per game in that span. And now the Lions are giving him more weapons and are seemingly fine with him throwing a bunch. Jim Caldwell has started tinkering with the details in his game and should be trusted given his work with Super Bowl winning quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco.
Stafford has potential to get 25-plus-points per week, if not into the 30s, making him a potential difference maker. Counting on him to shine in this offense with these receivers (not to mention an improving O-line) won't be tough. The best part? You can get him way after the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in Fantasy drafts. While those three guys will go between Rounds 1 and 3, Stafford will start being considered in Round 4, an attractive price given his potential in comparison to "The Big Three." He's safer than Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles and has a higher ceiling than Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. Unless Manning, Brees or Rodgers falls into your lap in Round 3, Stafford should be the quarterback you shoot for.
The Lions can't blame a tough schedule for poor play this year -- not unless mother nature dumps more snow on them in Weeks 16 and 17. Home games in their first eight weeks against the Giants, Packers, Bills and Saints should result in some shootouts. Road games at Carolina and at the Jets early on will be tricky but the next two -- at Minnesota and at Atlanta -- should yield numbers. Expect a solid start for the Lions heading into their Week 9 bye. A Dolphins home game is a nice post-bye perk before back-to-back road games at Arizona and New England. That could be rough, but they follow it up with a three-game homestand starting with a Turkey Day showdown with the Bears, then a long rest before the Bucs and Vikings come for a visit. Playing at Chicago in Week 16 and at Green Bay in Week 17 could be ugly, but Fantasy owners should consider the Lions schedule a very, very big positive.
Training camp battles
How much playing time will Eric Ebron have? The Lions are deep at tight end after re-signing Brandon Pettigrew, hanging on to Joseph Fauria and drafting Ebron. It's practically a given than Ebron will get fast-tracked to the starting lineup but he'll have to earn some of it. Let's just hope Fauria doesn't push him hard or that Pettigrew suddenly learns to hold on to the football.
Who's the third receiver? With all the talk of the Lions' studs, their third receiver role kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Jeremy Ross figures to land that role ahead of Ryan Broyles and rookie T.J. Jones, but Jones could surprise with a really good training camp. He's another name to keep in mind if you're in a dynasty league.
Who's kicking for the Lions? Once upon a time the Lions had a long-standing kicker named Jason Hanson. He retired. They put a band-aid on the position with David Akers last season and he wound up being inconsistent. So now the position will be handed to one of Nate Freese or Giorgio Tavecchio. Freese was the team's seventh-round pick out of Boston College who hit 70 of 81 field goals while handling kickoffs. Tavecchio played at Cal and made 48 of 64 field goals from 2008 to 2011 but hasn't earned an NFL job despite several tryouts. Our money is on Freese, who could be a real nice final-round pick given the opportunities he'll have with this offense.
This is the spot where we would have told you that Joique Bell was the better Fantasy bargain than Reggie Bush. But then in early May, Bell posted a picture on Instagram of his left knee wrapped and crutches nearby in the back seat of a car. Later we learned Bell had surgery (the extent of which is still unknown) and would miss offseason workouts but was on pace for the start of training camp. So now his recovery is something to watch.
Let's be optimistic and move ahead as if Bell is healthy and participating in camp. Under those circumstances, we like Bell a lot since it's been suggested that he and Bush would split reps more evenly moving forward. The Lions got a ton of production out of their run game in 2013, squeezing out over 1,500 total yards and seven total touchdowns from Bush and nearly 1,200 total yards and eight rushing touchdowns from Bell. But Bell already played 48.5 percent of the snaps according to ProFootballFocus.com (some with Bush), so maybe there aren't a ton of more snaps for him to get. The one area where he should stick is at the goal line, considering he's better suited for that spot than Bush. Of Bell's eight rushing touchdowns last season, seven came from the 2-yard line or closer, so that's a lock for him. Considering this offense and the expected increase in opportunities he'll get, Bell is well worth the fifth- or sixth-round investment you'll have to make compared to the third- or fourth-round pick someone else will spend for Bush.
But if Bell is hobbled, then that plan should be scrapped. Bush might even elevate to a solid Top 30 choice and third-string rusher Theo Riddick would start getting attention late. Riddick bears watching since he's practiced in place of Bell this spring and reportedly looked great.
But here's the bold prediction: It's a great move to land both Bush and Bell as part of your Fantasy team, especially if Bush is the second running back you take. Both finished in the Top 16 last season and should be in the 12-to-18 range this season if both stay upright. Moreover, an owner could take both and start one as a running back and one as a flex and account for every yard and score the Lions' backs pick up in a given week. This is an offense that should almost never see more than seven defenders in the box thanks to guys like Johnson, Tate and Ebron demanding attention. Theoretically, it should lead to solid numbers on a fairly regular basis for both backs presuming they remain healthy (and if you have both you're set in case of an injury). Drafting both Bush and Bell is a good plan for Fantasy owners to contemplate on Draft Day.
Joique Bell (knee), questionable for start of training camp. ... Golden Tate (shoulder), probable for start of training camp. ... Ryan Broyles (Achilles), probable for start of training camp. ... Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), probable for start of training camp. ... Rob Sims (shoulder), questionable for start of training camp.