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2016 Team Report: Detroit Lions

Quarterbacks

Starter: Matthew Stafford
Backup(s): Dan Orlovsky, Jake Rudock (R)

Starting QB: Matthew Stafford enters his eighth season as the Lions starter and amid renewed optimism after Stafford and the Lions offense finished the season on a hot streak. Detroit started 1-7 with Stafford completing less than 65% of his passes and turning the ball over far too often (11 interceptions in the first eight games). The Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter to Offensive Coordinator midseason and the move paid instant dividends. The Lions finished strong, winning six of their final eight games. Stafford led the second-half surge with 19 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. He also completed 71% of his passes in the season's second half. For the season, Stafford's 67.2% completion percentage was his career-high by a good margin. While Stafford did not put up the same gaudy passing yardage totals in 2015 that he did while leading league in passing attempts in 2011 and 2012, it was his best overall season and at just 28-years old, Stafford is just entering the prime of his career. Stafford is a high-end QB2, but has QB1 upside if he can maintain the momentum built under Cooter and quickly builds a rapport with free-agent addition Marvin Jones.

Backup QB: Dan Orlovsky is a 12-year veteran who has bounced around the league as a backup. He broke into the NFL in 2005 with the Lions and is in his second stint with the team after playing for Houston, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. He struggled mightily in his two extended auditions as a starter (2008 in Detroit and 2011 in Indianapolis). The 6'5, 230-pounder has been Stafford's primary backup each of the last two seasons and has proven capable of filling in for a couple games in a pinch. The Lions drafted Jake Rudock in the sixth round of the 2016 draft following a strong senior season under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Rudock has limited physical gifts but is smart and relatively polished. He should push Orlovsky for the backup job in training camp, but is most likely to end up on the practice squad.

Running Backs

Starter: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick
Backup(s): Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington (R), George Winn
Fullback(s): Mike Burton

Starting RB: Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick will share the backfield in 2016. Riddick played 47% of the snaps in 2015 and was used almost exclusively as a pass-catcher (72 career carries in three seasons). He is ineffective as a rusher, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in his career. Riddick has thrived in the passing game though. When Riddick was on the field in 2015, the Lions passed 86% of the time. Riddick caught 80 passes for 697 yards and three touchdowns. He is one of the game's best third-down backs and is a matchup nightmare when motioning out of the backfield into the slot. Riddick should again play nearly half of the snaps for the Lions and is a flex-option in PPR leagues. Abdullah is a dynamic second-year back who came on strong down the stretch of the 2015 season after a rough start. He was benched early in his rookie season after fumbling four times in his first six games. Ball-security has been a major issue for Abdullah both in college and early in his NFL career, but he showed improvement with just one fumble in his final ten games. The Lions were the NFL's worst rushing team in 2015 and Abdullah led the team with just 597 rushing yards (4.2 YPC). His best performances came in the final six weeks when he averaged 5.0 YPC and 52 rushing yards per game. Abdullah was solid in the passing game with 25 receptions for 183 yards, but Riddick averaged 2.2 more yards per target and was clearly the top receiving back on the team. Abdullah is recovering shoulder surgery for a torn labrum. While the Lions sound optimistic about his availability for training camp, the situation is worth monitoring. The trajectory is pointing up for Abdullah, but the presence of Riddick and the Lions poor rushing offense make him a flex-option with RB2 upside.

Backup RBs: Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington are the primary competitors for carries behind Riddick and Abdullah. Zenner went undrafted in 2015 out of South Dakota State, but generated considerable hype with a number of strong preseason performances. He was well on his way to earning a role as the Lions' top short-yardage runner as a rookie, but broken ribs and a collapsed lung suffered in Week 6 landed him on I.R. Zenner has the size and speed to be an effective committee back. Dwayne Washington was drafted in the 7th round and has an intriguing skill-set and top measurable. He's 6'2, 226 and ran a 4.44 forty at his pro day. He has pass-catching skills but does not play to his size. He is raw and could use a season on the practice squad. George Winn has bounced between the Lions practice squad and roster for the past seasons and has an outside shot at winning the fourth running back spot due to his special teams ability.

Fullback: Burton is a typical blocking FB who does not get many opportunities to touch the ball. He had just six touches in 2015 (one rush and five receptions).

Wide Receivers

Starters: Marvin Jones, Golden Tate
Backups: Anquan Boldin, TJ Jones, Andre Roberts, Corey Fuller, Andre Caldwell, Jay Lee (R), Quinshad Davis (R), Austin Willis, Jace Billingsley (R), Ryan Spadola

Starting WRs: When Calvin Johnson announced his retirement, the Lions moved quickly to replace him by signing Marvin Jones, the top free agent receiver on the market. He will compete with Golden Tate for that opportunity and has a solid chance to lead the Lions in receiving yards and touchdowns. Jones is a well-rounded receiver, boasting above-average size, speed, hands and route-running ability. Jones broke out as a second-year player in 2013 with 712 yards and 10 touchdowns despite seeing only 80 targets before missing the entire 2014 season with a foot injury. He had another strong season in 2015 with 65 catches for 814 yards and four touchdowns on 103 targets. Jones averaged an impressive 8.4 yards per target in Cincinnati. If he can maintain a similar per target average with the Lions, he could be poised for a breakout campaign because Calvin Johnson saw 149 targets as the Lions' top outside receiver in 2015. Even if Jones sees just 80% of those targets, he is poised to emerge as a fantasy WR3 if he can handle facing the opposition's top cover man. Golden Tate enters 2016 with the chance to emerge from Calvin Johnson's shadow and will battle Jones to be the top target in the Lions offense. Tate saw 128 targets in 2015 and could see that number rise higher with Jones replacing Calvin Johnson outside (Jones is unlikely to pick up all of Johnson's 149 targets). Tate has seen his yards per catch drop each of the past four seasons from a high of 15.3 in 2012 all the way down to 9.0 in 2015. The low YPC is mostly indicative of a change in the way the Lions used Tate, who lined up in the slot more than in the past and ran more underneath routes and quick screens. In the second half of 2015 (after Jim Bob Cooter took over the offense), Tate caught 83% of his targets (50 receptions on 60 targets). He has a real shot at cracking 100 receptions for the first time in his career in Cooter's quick-pass offense. Tate is one of the safest WR2 options available in PPR leagues. He has less upside in standard scoring due to his low touchdown totals (has averaged 5.5 touchdowns per season as a starter).

Backup WRs: Anquan Boldin was added to the mix on the eve training camp and instantly became the favorite for the #3 receiver job in Detroit. The wily veteran turns 36-years old in October, but his game has never been predicated upon speed. He should still be able to provide value in the slot and adds some much needed depth to a wide receiver group with more questions than answers behind Jones and Tate. The competition for the other backup receiver spots is wide-open with a cast of journeymen veterans and unproven youngsters vying for spots on the roster. Veterans Jeremy Kerley, Andre Caldwell, Andre Roberts and TJ Jones are the top contenders to make the team. Kerley will likely push for time in the slot behind Tate and Boldin.31-year old Andre Caldwell was signed to a one-year deal the week after the NFL draft to add more veteran depth and competition at the position. Caldwell was most recently with the Denver Broncos and contributed 32 catches over four seasons. Roberts was a late addition (June 13th) and immediately fell behind Anquan Boldin when Boldin was signed. TJ Jones is entering his third season with some positive buzz; Matthew Stafford and the coaching staff have both tabbed him as a breakout candidate. He managed just 10 receptions for 132 yards in 2015, but should push for a job as the third or fourth receiver. Of all the backups, Jones probably has the most upside. Rookie Jay Lee went undrafted out Baylor, but was a high-priority undrafted free agent for the Lions. At 6'2, 220 pounds, he would bring some size and physicality to the Lions receiver group. Corey Fuller and Corey Washington are also in the mix for the last receiver spots on the roster. Fuller is currently recovering from foot surgery however.

Tight Ends

Starters: Eric Ebron
Backups: Brandon Pettigrew, Matthew Mulligan, Cole Wick (R), Adam Fuehne (R)

Ebron enters his third season as a talented enigma who has yet to reach his true potential. As a top-ten draft pick in 2014, Ebron has had a disappointingly small impact upon the Lions offense. As a rookie, he caught just 25 of 47 targets for 248 yards and one touchdown (5.3 yards per target). He showed significant progress in 2015, catching 47 of 70 targets for 537 yards and five touchdowns (7.7 yards per target). Ebron shows flashes of the elite skills that made him such a hot draft commodity; he is fast, smooth and athletic. The third-year veteran just turned 23-years old and the hope is that he continues upon his upward trajectory. He will be given every chance to grow his role in the offense with Calvin Johnson now retired. It shouldn't be a surprise if Ebron makes another major leap in his third season. He is being drafted as a high-end TE2, but clearly has TE1 upside if he can tap into his awesome potential. Brandon Pettigrew tore his ACL in December, but claims he will be ready to go by the start of training camp. At 31-years old, Pettigrew has settled into a role of blocking specialist; he had just 17 receptions in 22 games over the past two seasons. Rookie Cole Wick (University of the Carnate Word) received the second-highest signing bonus in the Lions undrafted rookie class. He is a well-rounded tight end and is one of the undrafted rookies most likely to make the Lions roster. Tim Wright has been placed on injured reserve.

Place Kicker

Matt Prater: The Lions seemed to have solved their kicker problem with Prater, who was 22-for-24 on field goal attempts, a vast improvement from his 21-for-26 performance with the Lions in 2014, when he was a bandaid at a position that was so bad before him that it was discouraging to see the kicker take the field. The 2014 Lions actually produced a strong 38 field goal attempts, so 2015's low opportunity for Prater could have been a function of a sputtering offense that should improve in its first full season under Jim Bob Cooter. As an indoor kicker with a good distance leg, he's one to keep on our waiver wire watch list.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ameer Abdullah, Dwayne Washington, T.J. Jones

Drafted high as an electric running back, Ameer Abdullah also contributed heavily on special teams in 2015, and is projected to reprise his role as primary kickoff returner in 2016.

Punt Returners: Golden Tate, T.J. Jones, Jace Billingsley

One of the best receivers in the NFL with the ball in his hands, Golden Tate has been a strong punt returner throughout his career and will likely be Detroit's go-to option in 2016. If offensive involvement causes the team to scale back Tate's special teams workload, T.J. Jones is the next man up.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Reily Reiff, LG Laken Tomlinson, C Travis Swanson, RG Larry Warford, RT Taylor Decker [R]
Key Backups: Michael Ola, Geoff Schwartz, Joe Dahl, Graham Glasgow [R], Cornelius Lucas

The Lions made a key move to solidify their offensive line when they drafted Taylor Decker out of Ohio State in the first round. Decker is big and should be an instant starter at right tackle, which was a weak point for this unit. Decker will be helped by playing next to right guard Larry Warford, who is the Lions' highest performing lineman when he is healthy. Laken Tomlinson is a well above average option at left guard, and he is joined by Reilly Reiff, who is serviceable, on the cusp of being good, at left tackle. Travis Swanson took the center job last season and does a better job in the running game than against the pass. He will be pushed by third round draft pick Graham Glasgow. The team signed Geoff Schwartz to be a veteran backup at several spots, and they have interesting swing tackle prospects in Michael Ola and Cornelius Lucas. Overall, this is a young group with talent in run blocking, and the unit has upside potential to improve as the season progresses. Tier Ranking: Low Tier.

Team Defense

The Lions ranked between fifth and tenth in D/ST scoring systems in 2014. Ndamukong Suh left for Miami in free agency, but Detroit was able to replace him with Haloti Ngata with trade. A much worse loss for the defense was DeAndre Levy, who was only able to play in one game because of a hip injury. CB Darius Slay and DE Ziggy Ansah continued to raise their game, and the Lions were still in the top 10 in sacks and forced fumbles, but they were in the bottom 10 in scoring defense. The return of Levy should stabilize this unit as defensive coordinator Teryl Austin tries to recapture the 2014 magic. Early season home games against Tennessee, Philadelphia and Los Angeles could give us a reason to pick up the almost universally undrafted Lions D/ST.

Defensive Line

Starters: DT Haloti Ngata, DT Tyrunn Walker, DE Ezekial Ansah, DE Devin Taylor
Backups: DT A'Shawn Robinson [R], DT Caraun Reid, DE Wallace Gilberry, Anthony Zettel [R]

Starting DL: The starting defensive line was riddled by injury last year and are hoping for a reprieve this year. Though Haloti Ngata is in the twilight of his career, he continues to be effective at clogging up rushing lanes and eating blocks. Tyrunn Walker re-signed on a one-year deal with the Lions. He has healed from the broken leg and dislocated ankle that placed him on injured reserve early in the 2015 campaign. After spending the previous three years with the Lions as a reserve player, Devin Taylor will finally crack the starting lineup. Ezekiel Ansah broke out last year, nearly doubling the prior year's sack total with 14.5. It's reasonable to expect similar production from Ansah in 2016.

Backup DL: The Lions took talented run stuffer A'Shawn Robinson in the second round of the Draft, presumably to be the successor to Ngata. The veteran Ngata has said of Robinson, "He's a great rookie already." Caraun Reid continues to develop into a solid 3-tech defensive tackle and will likely spell Walker often. After spending the previous four years with the Bengals, Wallace Gilberry comes to the Lions on a one-year deal. He's the only backup on the roster with significant NFL playing time at defensive end. Tenacious but undersized rookie Anthony Zettel could struggle to make the 53-man roster.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB DeAndre Levy, OLB Jon Bostic, MLB Tahir Whitehead
Backups: OLB Josh Bynes, OLB Kyle Van Noy, OLB Khaseem Greene, OLB Zaviar Gooden MLB Jerry Stanford, MLB Antwoine Williams [R]

Starting LBs: Last season, the linebacker group was another that struggled due to injury woes and lack of depth. DeAndre Levy struggled to return from a hip injury suffered in preseason action, but was ultimately shut down for the year. The defense really missed Levy's presence. Levy continues to deal with an undisclosed issues and was placed on the Non Football Injury list to start training camp. Tahir Whitehead voiced this sentiment in a recent interview with Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. He stated, "It's extremely exciting to get him back because we know as a linebacker corps, he was truly missed during this past season." Whitehead will continue to play in the middle, a transition he was asked to make last season. Jon Bostic was traded to Detroit by the Patriots in early May for a conditional seventh-round pick. He is the current favorite to win the outside spot opposite of Levy.

Backup LBs: The competition among this group is truly wide open. Josh Bynes really is the only lock to make the final roster. Bynes can play competently in both the outside or middle and may end up being pushed to start if Bostic proves unworthy. Former second-round pick Kyle Van Noy continues to hang around on the roster, but has largely been a disappointment on the field. He'll compete with other NFL retreads, such as Jerry Stanford, Khaseem Greene, and Zaviar Gooden (Titans) to earn a reserve role.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Darius Slay, CB Nevin Lawson, FS Glover Quin, SS Rafael Bush
Backups: CB Quandre Diggs, CB Alex Carter, SS Tavon Wilson, SS Miles Killebrew [R]

Starting DBs: The Lions corner depth seems to be the current strength of this defense. However, the same cannot be said of the strong safety position, which continues to be an open competition. Darius Slay remains an ascending young corner. At the end of July, Slay signed a four year extension with 23 million dollars of that money guaranteed. At the end of the 2015 season, Rashean Mathis hung up his cleats, opening the way for Nevin Lawson to move into his role. Rafael Bush is the current favorite to win the starting safety job based on having more playing experience with the Saints. He started fourteen games over the last two seasons, compared to Tavon Wilson's four. Glover Quin recently sang the praises of new strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash, who has implemented a rigorous offseason plan for the Lions. Quin said of the program, "A little more intense, a little more focus on certain details. It's good work. I love all the work. I've always felt like working hard is the way to go."

Backup DBs: Look for sophomores Quandre Diggs and Alex Carter to continue increasing their playing time and provide solid corner depth for the Lions. The Lions signed former Patriot's second-round pick Tavon Wilson this offseason in hopes he will be able to compete with Rafael Bush for the starting job. Rookie Miles "Killa" Killebrew has an outside chance to earn the start at strong safety. Known for his hard-hitting style, Killebrew is also a solid tackler who understands the importance of good form in bringing his target to the ground.

Last modified: 2016-08-29 10:55:19