The Lions are a respectable real-life football team, and one that earned its second playoff berth in three years last season. However, a vulnerable defense often forces the team into deploying a ball-control offense that has had trouble supporting multiple high-end fantasy options in the past.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
THE JIM BOB COOTER EFFECT
Ever since Jim Bob Cooter took over as the Lions offensive coordinator prior to Week 8 of the 2015 season, Matthew Stafford's numbers have improved noticeably across the board. Prior to Cooter's arrival, Stafford had completed just 60.1 percent of his career passes at 7.0 yards per attempt to go along with a 4.3 touchdown percentage, 2.8 interception percentage and passer rating of 83.9. In the meantime? Stafford boasts a 66.6 completion percentage at 7.3 YPA to match a 4.8 TD percentage, 1.5 INT percentage and QB rating of 97.5. What's the secret? Cooter doesn't call for Stafford to force the ball downfield, which may be strategic with Calvin Johnson enjoying retirement all of last season. Instead, Stafford relies upon a quick, short-range passing attack that emphasizes distributing targets among several pass catchers. Unfortunately, the quarterback's statistical improvements have yet to translate to consistently elite fantasy numbers. Although Stafford has tallied at least 250 yards and two touchdowns in the same game nine times under Cooter's tutelage, highlighted by a 337-yard, five-TD showing against the Eagles in Week 12 of 2015, he's also failed to manufacture an end-zone strike on five different occasions. As a result, Stafford should be seen as a low-floor, high-upside quarterback heading into 2017 drafts.
Ameer Abdullah, TAKE TWO
The Lions took Ameer Abdullah in the second round of the 2015 draft in order to spark a ground game that finished the previous season with the fifth-least rushing yards across the entire NFL. Instead of seeing any sort of improvement in production on the ground in his rookie year, the Lions fell to dead last in the league. However, this wasn't Abdullah's fault as the entire organization was in a state of disarray -- so much so that Detroit fired its president, general manager, offensive coordinator and a pair of assistant coaches midway through the season. When the 2016 campaign finally came around, Abdullah appeared poised for a breakout as the team's clear feature back. He started off hot, averaging 5.6 yards per carry across 18 totes, until a torn Lisfranc in his left foot in Week 2 sentenced the tailback to injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Various combinations of Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington and Justin Forsett comprised the running back corps thereafter, but no runner in particular emerged as an obvious No. 1 RB, and the team once again finished the year bottom-five in rushing. Since Detroit didn't address running back in any significant way this offseason, Abdullah once again appears primed to enter training camp as the team's workhorse ballcarrier.
IT STARTS IN THE TRENCHES
For the first time since 2005, the Lions didn't draft an offensive lineman, in large part due to the shallow and underwhelming available crop of prospects from which to choose. However, GM Bob Quinn may have been bracing for this possibility all along. When starters Larry Warford (Saints) and Riley Reiff (Vikings) bolted in free agency, Quinn acted fast to find reinforcements from the cream of the free-agent crop by snagging stud guard T.J. Lang from the division-rival Packers as well as Ricky Wagner from the Ravens. After those signings, Detroit simply didn't need to address the offensive line through the draft. While they couldn't have envisioned 2016 first-round left tackle Taylor Decker undergoing shoulder surgery in June, which will keep him sidelined four to six months, the Lions will still trot out a first unit composed of Lang, Wagner, second-year guard Graham Glasgow and veteran center Travis Swanson. It can't be ignored, though, that this is the organization that hasn't gotten the best out of its O-line in recent seasons. Not only have the Lions surrendered more than 2.4 sacks per game since 2013, they also haven't topped 4.0 yards per carry over that same span. Since both Lang and Wagner are better in both pass protection and run blocking than the players they replaced, there's optimism this group could finally turn the corner.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Ameer Abdullah
Abdullah's ability to stay healthy is crucial to having a balanced offensive attack in 2017. Fortunately, he can't be considered an injury-prone back by any standard; he completed a full, 16-game campaign as a rookie and, prior to a season-ending torn Lisfranc in his left foot last year, hadn't missed a game since high school.
RISING: Eric Ebron
Ebron's numbers have improved across the board year to year in nearly every statistical receiving category aside from touchdowns since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2014. He just needs more work in the red zone.
FALLING: Marvin Jones
Jones looked the part of a true No. 1 receiver during the onset of the 2016 campaign but turned out to be more of a field-stretching role player. The selection of an early-round wideout could bump him down the depth chart.
SLEEPER: Dwayne Washington
Washington was given the first crack at seizing the lead running back gig once Ameer Abdullah went down last season. Now in his second year, Washington likely will be more prepared if opportunity again comes knocking.
KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 3 WIDE RECEIVER
The Lions have little proven talent at wide receiver behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. Anquan Boldin served as the tertiary option last year, but he's unsigned at press time and has shown no indication of returning to Detroit. While 2017 third-rounder Kenny Golladay is the favorite to fill in, fourth-year wideout TJ Jones is waiting in the wings and could take over if the rookie is slow to acclimate to the professional level. In this very role a year ago, Boldin caught 67 passes on 95 targets for 584 yards and eight touchdowns across 16 games.
T.J. Lang – G (from Packers)
At 30 years old, an upgrade over outgoing guard Larry Warford.
Darren Fells – TE (from Cardinals)
In-line blocking tight end who can catch a few passes, too.
Ricky Wagner – OT (from Ravens)
Stellar pass blocker who can hold his own in the run game.
Jarrad Davis – LB (Rd. 1, No. 21 – Florida)
Takes over as the starting MLB in DC Teryl Austin's 4-3 scheme.
Kenny Golladay – WR (Rd. 3, No. 96 – Northern Illinois)
Big-bodied receiver should improve the red-zone offense.
Anquan Boldin – WR (FA)
Aging wideout who led the team with eight touchdown catches in 2016.
Larry Warford – G (to Saints)
Mauling guard coming off a strong 2016 cashed in during free agency.
DeAndre Levy – LB (FA)
Volume tackler limited to just six games the past two seasons.
THE INJURY FRONT
Matthew Stafford, QB – Stafford dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand in Week 14 of last season, but the injury didn't require surgery and he was able to recover fully with a simple prescription of rest.
Ameer Abdullah, RB – Abdullah landed on injured reserve just two weeks into the 2016 campaign due to a torn Lisfranc in his left foot. However, he was fully cleared to return by March and was a full participant in the entire offseason program.
Theo Riddick, RB – After missing the final five contests of last season, Riddick underwent surgery on both of his wrists this offseason. While his left wrist seems to have healed nicely, his right wrist was in a cast at OTAs. No matter, both wrists were reported to be structurally sound heading into training camp.