Fantasy Football 2014 draft prep: Detroit Loins

lions

2014 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Jed Collins, WR Golden Tate, DE Darryl Tapp, DT Vaughn Martin, CB Cassius Vaughn, S James Ihedigbo.
Early Draft Picks:
TE Eric Ebron, DE/OLB Kyle Van Noy, C Travis Swanson, CB Nevin Lawson, DE Larry Webster, DT Caraun Reid. Lions Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Shaun Hill, WR Nate Burleson, OT Jason Fox, G Leroy Harris, DE Willie Young, DE Israel Idonije, CB Chris Houston, S Louis Delmas.

2014 Detroit Lions Offense:
So much talent, so little production. The Lions’ offense has loads of skilled players, including Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and former first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew, yet after a hot start, they were limited to 21 points or fewer in six of their final eight contests. The team suffered an epic collapse, starting 6-3, but finishing 1-6.

Multiple players were responsible for this, including Stafford. The former No. 1 overall pick has all the talent in the world, but he has terrible mechanics and refuses to fix his problems. The result is inconsistent play. He was unstoppable at times – he torched a dominant Cincinnati defense for 357 yards and three touchdowns in October, for instance – but he has stretches in which he becomes a turnover machine. For example, he gave the ball away six times in the final four games, throwing just two scores in the process. Those four opponents included the Eagles, Giants and Vikings, all of whom had pedestrian defenses.

Three coaches were brought in to help Stafford’s mechanics. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi told the media at the end of May that he’s pleased with Stafford’s improvement. If Stafford regresses, however, he’ll at least be able to lean on a slightly better supporting cast. The Lions acquired two key offensive pieces this spring. The first was a free-agent signing in Golden Tate. The former Seahawk could be a capable No. 2 target. He was overwhelmed as the top option in Seattle, but still made some big plays. With Calvin Johnson, the top receiver in the NFL, starting across from him, opposing defenses won’t be able to pay much attention to Tate. Also, having Tate around will obviously help when Johnson is injured. Stafford looked completely lost when Megatron wasn’t on the field this past season.

The second key piece was No. 10 overall pick Eric Ebron, an athletic tight end out of North Carolina. Rookie tight ends seldom produce, but Ebron could be an immediate upgrade over Pettigrew, who is very prone to bone-headed mistakes.

All of these new weapons are nice, but the Lions have emphasized that they want to run the ball more often this year. That means more of Joique Bell and less of Bush, who was benched multiple times at the end of the 2013 campaign because of fumbles and other mistakes. More Bell, less Bush was a trend that was going to occur anyway, given Bell’s dependability. Bell has eclipsed the 50-reception plateau in each of the past two seasons, so he’s an effective weapon as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

The Lions at least don’t have to worry about the offensive line very much. The front did a terrific job of protecting Stafford this past season, surrendering just 23 sacks. There was actually just one blocker responsible for more than a single sack, and that would be left tackle Riley Reiff, who permitted seven. However, Reiff, a 2012 Thursday selection, was just a first-year starter, so there’s a good chance he’ll improve. If so, he’ll form a solid tackle tandem with another young player, LaAdrian Waddle, who performed well this past season despite being an undrafted rookie.

Waddle didn’t even start until Week 8, so Detroit’s front has the potential to be much better in 2014 – especially considering that all three starters on the interior will be back. Guards Larry Warford and Rob Sims, as well as center Dominic Raiola, combined to allow just one sack this past season. Warford in particular was excellent; he was completely dominant as a third-round rookie, and he could have easily won Offensive Rookie of the Year. The one concern is Raiola, who turns 36 in December, but the Lions spent a third-round choice on Arkansas’ Travis Swanson as a potential successor.

2014 Detroit Lions Defense:
Detroit fans will be very familiar with the team’s defense, but then again, they may not completely recognize it. That’s because nine of last year’s 11 starters will be back, but the coaching staff will be using a 4-3/3-4 hybrid scheme instead of a traditional 4-3 that Jim Schwartz utilized.

The Lions figure to have an outstanding pass rush regardless of what formation they are using. They are led, of course, by Ndamukong Suh. The former No. 2 overall pick has been inconsistent at times, but he was dominant in 2013. The sack total doesn’t show it – he recorded 5.5 – but he was completely disruptive on the interior. Unfortunately, his running mate Nick Fairley didn’t have as fruitful of a season. He didn’t perform poorly, but he was sluggish at times. Suh and Fairley were also heavily penalized – they combined for 20 infractions – so that number will need to drop. Detroit’s new coaching staff needs to have control over its players, which Schwartz failed to do.

Meanwhile, the Lions figure to be better on the edge. Ziggy Ansah, who led all rookies with eight sacks in 2013, will be entering his second campaign, so he’ll almost certainly upgrade his play. Detroit also added his BYU teammate, Kyle Van Noy, in the second round in May. Meanwhile, Jason Jones figures to be the other starter on the defensive line, but he’s coming off a torn patellar tendon. Players often struggle to bounce back from such an injury, so he’ll probably fail to live up to expectations in 2014.

The two inside linebackers in the 3-4 look will be Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. It’s unclear how either will transition into the 3-4, but it’s worth noting that both excelled this past season, particularly in pass coverage. Neither player has hit 30 yet, so the scheme fit will be the only potential issue with them.

Detroit’s weakest area on defense was the secondary this past season. The team was expected to make wholesale changes in this area, but the front office only made one move of significance, signing James Ihedigbo over from the Ravens. Ihedigbo isn’t as naturally talented as the player he’s replacing, Louis Delmas, but he’ll be much more dependable; he hasn’t missed a game in three years, while Delmas was always banged up. Besides, Ihedigbo is a decent defensive back, so he and Glover Quin should be a solid safety duo this season.

The cornerback position still will be a huge problem, however. Many thought the Lions would use the No. 10 overall pick on Justin Gilbert, but they never got the chance because Cleveland pounced on him. As a result, the top three corners on the roster will be Rashean Mathis, Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, unless fourth-rounder Nevin Lawson steps up right away. Mathis was the best of the bunch in 2013, which is just sad considering he’ll be 34 in August. Bentley and Slay both struggled mightily, but there’s some hope with them because they are entering their third and second seasons, respectively.

2014 Detroit Lions Schedule and Intangibles:
The Lions, historically, have one of the worst home-field advantages in the NFL, owning a horrendous 64-80 record since 1996. But that’s nothing compared to their 32-113 road mark during that span. They were 4-4 as hosts and 3-5 as visitors in 2013.

Detroit surrendered a ridiculous four special-teams scores in 2012, but the team managed to rectify those issues. The Lions had two touchdowns and allowed none in 2013, though they were still outgained on kickoffs.

Jason Hanson announced his retirement last offseason, so it’s no surprise that the Lions’ kicking game struggled. They made a huge mistake by going with David Akers, who missed some important attempts, over Havard “Kickalicious” Rugland, but they spent a seventh-round pick on Nate Freese.

As a rookie punter, Sam Martin finished 10th in net average, though he didn’t get many kicks inside the 20.

The Lions have an easy schedule. Aside from the Packers (twice), they battle only three teams that made the playoffs last year, and one of them (Carolina) figures to be in severe decline. The Saints (home), Patriots (away), Falcons (away), Cardinals (away) and Bears (twice) will provide a challenge, but the other games are easy.

2014 Detroit Lions Analysis: The Lions have plenty of talent on their roster, but that was the case last year when they went 7-9, and the year before that, when they finished 4-12. They’re a team that has tons of potential, but the lack of discipline and a losing mentality constantly derails their chances. Perhaps a new coaching staff will help, but it’s not like Jim Caldwell has a great head-coaching pedigree. Detroit could definitely make a playoff run, but it’s more likely that the team will once again disappoint its fans.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North)

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