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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Detroit Lions

Senior Fantasy Writer
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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

2013 Touches Leaders
816 total touches
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%
All others 116 14.2%

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.

Schedule analysis

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.

Bold prediction

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.

Injury report

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.

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Player News
Redskins' Thompson, Redd to compete for third-down back role
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:24 am ET) Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this week at the NFL owners' meetings running back Chris Thompson will get the first chance to secure third-down responsibilities, according to The Washington Post. Silas Redd will also get consideration for the role of third-down back.

“Chris [Thompson] came in last year at the end and did some things, and we’re hoping that he can come back and stay healthy in the offseason and give us a little jolt back there,” Gruden said. “And Silas Redd will get every chance to do some things also.”

Although, the Redskins could look to bring in some competition before training camp begins.

“I also think that at the running back position in the draft, there’s a ton of them,” Gruden said. “It’s a very deep running back draft in my opinion, and we’re excited to add another piece at some point, hopefully. We have seven picks. Hopefully one of them will be a running back, or a free agent to compete. There are some good free agents that haven’t been signed yet. But, giving Chris an opportunity, Silas, Alfred (Morris), that’s where it starts. And we’ll add some more later on for competition.”


Falcons could bring in Matt Schaub to vie for backup QB role
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:10 am ET) Falcons coach Dan Quinn is not ruling out bringing back former Atlanta quarterback Matt Schaub to compete for the backup role behind starter Matt Ryan, per ESPN.

"Schaub is certainly somebody that we could [add]," Quinn said. "As we get through it, we'll let you know if we go down that road."

The 34-year-old Schaub was released by the Raiders in mid-March. T.J. Yates and Sean Renfree are the other quarterbacks on the Falcons' roster.


Panthers' Rivera expecting Stephen Hill to contribute in 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:45 am ET) Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes wide receiver Stephen Hill is ready to make an impact in 2015 after spending the 2014 season on the practice squad, per ESPN.

“Very much so," Rivera said Wednesday during the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix. “He’s a guy we feel has an opportunity. We’re very excited about [seeing] Stephen during OTAs and minicamp.

“With his size (6-4, 215) and speed and his ability to get vertical, if he can assimilate to what we do -- and I think he will; he seems to be a very smart man -- he might be a guy that has an opportunity to contribute for us."

Rivera felt Hill's year on the practice squad was beneficial after the 2012 second-round pick failed to live up to expectations during his tenure with the Jets. 

“I thought it was a good opportunity to take a step back and take a break," Rivera said. “The thing I liked about Stephen was how he contributed to our football team’s success. He came in. He had been a second-round pick. He had no assumptions, no entitlement.

“He ran all the scout teams for us. He ran them hard. Gave us great looks, which is what makes us excited 'cause you watch a guy perform who could very easily dog it, and he didn’t. And you saw him grow. You saw him make catches. You saw him get comfortable in his own skin again."


Terence Newman reunites with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:16 am ET) The Vikings announced Friday they signed cornerback Terence Newman, who played for coach Mike Zimmer in Dallas and Cincinnati.

“That’s the biggest thing. He can still play. He came in the league later. I think he was 25 when he came in,” Zimmer said, per the team's official website. “He struggled a little bit in Dallas and then played great in Cincinnati. Last year, he didn’t play quite as good, so seemingly with me, we get things fixed a little bit. I really respect him, and I think he really respects me.”

Although terms of the deal were not officially released, NFL.com reported earlier this week the veteran cornerback's deal is a one-year, $2.5 million contract.


Gruden: Redskins 'keeping a close eye' on Santana Moss
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:55 am ET) With wide receiver Santana Moss still looking to continue his NFL career, Washington coach Jay Gruden said there is a chance the Redskins might re-sign the veteran receiver, who had just 10 catches in 2014.

"We're keeping a close eye on Santana," Gruden said at the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix, per ESPN. "You know, that's something that we know where Santana is and he knows where we are, and something may work out down the road.

"I could always play with Santana. Santana's a great person. He's great in the locker room for us. He knows all the positions. I know he's going to be in great shape, and I would not hesitate one bit to call him."


Jaguars' Thomas won't try to measure up to Broncos' numbers
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:11 am ET) New Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas told SI.com he has already begun working with quarterback Blake Bortles.

"It’s exciting, that first time you get to work out with your new quarterback," he said. "We’ve got a couple thousand more reps to go, but I’m really looking forward to that chemistry and growing with that entire offense."

The expectations will be elevated for Thomas, who is coming off two great seasons with the Broncos. However, Thomas isn't out to prove he can have the same production without Peyton Manning throwing him passes.

"I think I’ve got to be a little bit cautious on trying to prove so much," he said. "I think I’ve just got to go out there and work my hardest, and do everything I can to win every route, and see what happens. I don’t want to set a goal of 'I gotta have these numbers.' I’m just going to work my hardest every day, do everything I can to become a better player, and do everything I can to help out my team and this offense."

Thomas is also confident he will be able to coexist on offense with veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, who has been with the team since 2006.

"I don’t think we’ll have any problem playing together," he said. "I was actually talking to him this weekend. I ran into him; we both live in L.A. He’s a really good guy. I’ve met him a couple times before. We both have the same marketing company, so we know the same people, and people that I respect speak very highly of him. I think we complement each other very well. There are going to be things that he can teach me, and I can learn from him."


Former Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin: I still believe in Chip Kelly
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:59 am ET) Former Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin apparently has no ill-will toward Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly. Although the Eagles could not match the Chiefs' five-year, $55 million contract offer, which Maclin signed in mid-March, Maclin is still a fan of Kelly, who has overhauled the Eagles' roster this offseason.

"I still believe in Chip," Maclin said, per The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I think Chip's going to do great things here. I have the utmost respect for him. Unfortunately, we couldn't get something worked out. But at the end of the day I'm very excited about playing for Kansas City and playing for Big Red."

As well as Maclin not being brought back, the Eagles traded LeSean McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles. They also released defensive end Trent Cole and offensive lineman Todd Herremans.

Maclin missed the 2013 season -- Kelly's first in the NFL -- due to a torn ACL. However, he returned in 2014 to post career highs in targets (143), catches (85) and receiving yards (1,318), while tying a career high with 10 touchdowns.


Lions' Caldwell: Don't expect Stafford's numbers to change much
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:36 am ET) Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is just one of five quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards. However, since he accomplished the feat in 2011, his passing yards have declined each season.

Stafford passed for 4,257 yards and attempted 602 passes in 2014 -- his first year under coach Jim Caldwell. While at the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix this week, Caldwell said it's probably safe not to expect Stafford's numbers to change much in 2015.

"Here's the thing I want to make certain you guys understand, and see what I see just in terms of my vision," Caldwell said, per MLive.com. "When I tell you we're not going to throw the ball anymore than we threw it, that's a fact. We're probably not going to throw it (more).

"If we do throw it more, that means we're struggling, we're not winning, we're not a very good football team. OK? Plain and simple. Maybe that ball's got to be distributed a little bit differently, but I don't anticipate those numbers changing, overall, a significant amount."


Nick Foles' acquisition won't change Rams' plans to draft QB
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:26 am ET) Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the team is still looking to draft a quarterback this year, despite the acquisition of quarterback Nick Foles, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“It’s our intention to draft one,” Fisher said. “The Nick (Foles) trade has no bearing over what we do in the draft.”

The Rams have the 10th pick in the first round. It's unlikely Jamies Winston or Marcus Mariota fall that far, so unless St. Louis trades up, then they are likely looking to draft from the second-tier of quarterbacks, which includes Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Garrett Grayson.

“There’s some outstanding players once you get beyond (Winston and Mariota),” Fisher said. “We’re just starting the process. My understanding based on our first-wave draft meetings is that there’s some young quarterbacks that can play.”

Petty, who played at Baylor, said in a radio interview earlier in March he intends to visit with the Rams before the draft.

“Good combine,” Fisher said. “Got a very strong arm. Good athlete. You don’t see him do things that we’re gonna ask him to do, so I think you have to see him actually work out, private workout, things like that.”


Cowboys' Garrett: DL Nick Hayden an 'important signing'
by Dave Peters | CBSSports.com
(3/26/2015) Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett made it a point of emphasis to mention to reporters at the NFL Meetings that re-signing defensive lineman Nick Hayden was important, reports the Dallas Morning News.

“Well, we’re always trying to get better and we have to get better,’’ Garrett said. “We have to bring some impact players into our defense. But Nick has been such a good player for us as a leader of that defensive line and he’s a really productive player. There’s a lot of the dirty work but he’s one of those guys who makes a lot of hits on the ball, is around the football a lot and simply makes a lot of plays.

"That was an important signing for us.’’

Hayden has started all 16 games with the Cowboys for two consecutive seasons. Over his seven-year career, he has 135 total tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.


 
 
 
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