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2021 Team Report: Detroit Lions

Last updated: Tue, Jun 15

Offensive Philosophy

New head coach Dan Campbell isn't known for offensive strategy and gameplanning, but he did study under Sean Payton for five years. While Anthony Lynn is thought of as a run-first, ball security offensive coordinator, Campbell said he and Lynn are in agreement about aligning with what their players do best - creating and exploiting mismatches. Lynn insisted that he is more flexible than his ground and pound background, but when you look at the strengths of the current offensive roster, the line is probably better as a run-blocking unit than a pass blocking one at this moment, especially with Halapoulivaati Vaitai shifted inside to guard. Their best offensive players are D'Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson. They do have speed on the outside at wide receiver and the tackles to give Jared Goff the time to throw downfield, although Lynn is also very risk-averse in his philosophy. The Lions will probably seek to control the clock with long drives, lean on Goff as little as possible, and hope to keep their rebuilding defense on the sidelines. That might not be as easy they hope, and Goff could have the offense on his shoulders more than the team wants. The offense should still present Swift, Hockenson, and maybe fourth-round pick Amon St. Brown with outsized opportunity.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Jared Goff
Backup(s): Tim Boyle, David Blough

Starting QB: For the first time in 12 years, Matthew Stafford will not be the Week 1 starter for Detroit. In a blockbuster offseason trade, the Lions traded Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff and a package of draft picks. Goff arrives with much to prove after slowly falling out of the favor of Rams head coach Sean McVay over the last couple seasons. Goff's partnership with McVay got off to an amazing start with Goff averaging an outstanding 8.5 adjusted yards per attempt in each of his first two seasons under McVay and leading the Rams to the Super Bowl after the 2018 season. His production fell off dramatically last season, however. In 2019, Goff threw just 22 touchdowns despite leading the league in passing attempts and also threw a career-high 16 interceptions. Turnovers have been a major issue for Goff. He has thrown 41 interceptions and fumbled 29 times over the last three seasons. A fresh start could rejuvenate Goff's career but there is also the risk his struggles could increase given the much worse supporting cast in Detroit. The Lions wide receiver corps is made up entirely of journeymen and unproven youngsters. Given his lack of rushing upside and lack of weapons, it is hard to get excited about Goff's fantasy prospects in 2021.

Backup QB: Tim Boyle was signed in the offseason to a one-year deal worth $2M after three years with the Packers. He was signed by Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and was able to stick on the roster as the third-string quarterback. Last season, Boyle actually beat out the Packers 2020 first-round pick, Jordan Love, for the backup job behind Aaron Rodgers. Boyle has very little regular-season experience (four career passing attempts) but has made the most of his preseason opportunities and looks to be the favorite for the backup spot with the Lions. David Blough has more experience than Boyle but struggled in a handful of 2019 starts for the Lions, throwing more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (4).

Running Backs

Starter: D'Andre Swift
Backup(s): Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson (R), Michael Warren, Dedrick Mills (R)
Fullback(s): Jason Cabinda

Starting RB: D'Andre Swift is a prime breakout candidate for 2021. His rookie season had some ups and downs. A dropped pass in the end zone cost the Lions an early-season win and injuries at inopportune times stalled his progress. However, there were also plenty of flashes of brilliance mixed in. Swift showed a nose for the end zone, scoring 10 touchdowns on just 150 touches. He also showed major upside as a pass catcher, averaging 3.6 receptions per game (57-catch pace over 16 games), and could see his role in the passing game increase even more. With his pass-catching ability and nose for the end zone, Swift does not need to be an every down back to emerge as a fantasy star. We have seen Alvin Kamara perform as a dominant fantasy back without playing every down (61% of snaps last season) and that type of usage is well within the range of possibilities for Swift with the Lions. The bigger question may be how much the lack of surrounding talent on this rebuilding roster impacts Swift's overall productivity and red zone opportunities. He enters 2021 as a high-end RB2 with legitimate RB1 upside, particularly in PPR leagues.

Backup RBs: Jamaal Williams signed a two-year, $6M deal to backup Swift in the Lions backfield. He rushed for at least 460 yards in each of his four seasons in Green Bay and caught at least 30 passes each of the past two years. Williams is a reliable meat and potatoes runner who has never fumbled and only missed four total games in his NFL career. The Lions used one of the last picks in the draft Jermar Jefferson, who put up big numbers at Oregon State but does not possess any one standout trait that would predict NFL success.

Fullback: Jason Cabinda is a converted linebacker who makes his primary impact on special teams. He played just 130 offensive snaps last season and carried the ball twice for eight yards.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Amon-Ra St. Brown (R)
Backups: Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, Kalif Raymond, Sage Surratt (R), Jonathan Adams (R), Javon McKinley (R) Damion Ratley, Victor Bolden

Starting WRs: The Lions rebuilt wide receiver corps may be the worst in the league. 2020 starters Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola have all departed and been replaced by a couple of low-dollar free agent signings and a day three rookie. Tyrell Williams had a breakout 2016 season for the Chargers but has seen his production decrease in each subsequent season. He signed a one-year deal with Detroit after being cut by Las Vegas. Williams made it just halfway through the big four-year, $44M free agent deal he signed in 2019. His first season for the Raiders, he got off to a hot start but faded down the stretch as he played through a foot injury. Williams missed the entire 2020 campaign with a labrum injury. The 29-year old has good size and speed but profiles best as a complementary third option. Across from Williams, Breshad Perriman looks like the favorite to start but will have to hold off second-year receiver Quintez Cephus. At age 27, Perriman is already on his fifth team. His best stretch of play came late in the 2019 season with Tampa Bay when injuries pushed him up the depth chart. He was able to parlay that strong finish into a solid one-year deal with the Jets but failed to make much of an impact, finishing the season with just 30 receptions. Perriman has struggled at times with drops and sports a brutal 49.0% career catch rate. Rookie fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown is well positioned to open the season as the starter in the slot. He was a big producer at USC who might have gone earlier in the draft if he was a bit more explosive. St. Brown has a realistic shot to lead all Lions wide receivers in targets as a rookie. However, there is not much to get excited about here from a fantasy perspective because the Lions two most best passing game targets play tight end and running back.

Backup WRs: Quintez Cephus should also be in the mix for playing time after a decent rookie season in which he caught 20 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns. The second-year player out of Wisconsin is not a burner but uses his size effectively as a downfield target. He will provide a strong challenge to Perriman and Williams for the starting outside wide receiver role. This unimpressive depth chart is prime for an undrafted rookie to make the opening day roster. Sage Surratt is a big-bodied former basketball player who could make it as a possession receiver. Jonathan Adams Jr. is also has a similar power forward type of skill set. Geronimo Allison spent his first four years with the Packers. His career-best season came in 2019, when he had 34 catches for 287 yards and two touchdowns. He signed with the Lions prior to the 2020 season but decided to opt out. Kalif Raymond may stick on the roster as a special teamer. He has 19 career catches across four seasons for four different teams.

Tight Ends

Starters: T.J. Hockenson
Backups: Darren Fells, Hunter Bryant (inj), Hunter Thedford, Alize Mack

T.J. Hockenson had a breakout sophomore season in 2020, catching 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. That was good for a TE5 fantasy season but he still provided very little in terms of a week-to-week advantage at the position. He played all 16 games and averaged just 45 receiving yards per game. As he enters his age-24 season, the big question is how much more Hockenson is capable of. He is a good athlete but not a freakish physical specimen like Darren Waller or some of the league's other elite producers. One thing working in Hockenson's favor is the utter lack of competition for targets. He enters 2021 as the clear top option in the Lions passing game, which means he could see more than the 101 targets he earned in 2020. Hockenson provides a solid floor along with potential upside if he makes another leap in his third season. The team signed Darren Fells after the draft, which should make them viable in two tight end sets and free up Hockenson to run more routes since Fells is an accomplished blocker. Hunter Bryant will spend the year on the NFI list after he stuck on the roster as an undrafted rookie last year. Mack has some passing game ability, but is totally unproven. He was drafted by the Saints when Campbell was on the coaching staff as the tight ends coach. Thedford would be a blocking tight end if he makes the team as the backup to Hockenson.

Place Kicker

Randy Bullock, Matthew Wright: Matt Prater will not be the Lions kicker for the first time since 2013. He instead signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with the Cardinals after arguably his worst season as a Lion. Detroit signed Randy Bullock to a more modest 1.75 million dollar, one year deal, with 750,000 guaranteed, so they expect him to win the job over Matthew Wright, who made all 11 of his kicks (four field goal attempts, seven extra points) filling in for Chris Boswell with the Steelers last year. Bullock has been somewhat of a journeyman and often resides in the low 80's in field goal accuracy percentage, so it's possible that Wright could win the job. Either way, this will be one of the least attractive kicker situations in the league.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Kalif Raymond

The Lions' let return specialist Jamal Agnew leave in free agency, but quickly signed Kalif Raymond (most recently of Tennessee) to fill the void he left behind.

Punt Returners: Kalif Raymond

The Lions' let return specialist Jamal Agnew leave in free agency, but quickly signed Kalif Raymond (most recently of Tennessee) to fill the void he left behind.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Taylor Decker, LG Jonah Jackson, C Frank Ragnow, RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai, RT Penei Sewell [R]
Key Backups: OL Tyrell Crosby, OL Logan Stenberg

Penei Sewell was drafted seventh overall and he will start at right tackle, next to mauling guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai Center Frank Ragnow and left tackle Taylor Decker, also former first-round picks, are other highlights. Jonah Jackson started last year at both guard spots but will be the left guard this year. This is a mid-level group, but if Vaitai stays healthy, the rebuild right side with Sewell should get them into the top-10 quickly.

Team Defense

The Lions won't be nursing many leads and they are transitioning to a new defense under first-time defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. They did at least add Michael Brockers and second round pick Levi Onwuzurike upfront to strengthen the line, and Trey Flowers/Romeo Okwara present a credible pair of rush ends. The linebacker group is under construction, but Jamie Collins is a holdover from the Patricia regime and legit playmaker. Tracy Walker was in and out of the lineup under Patricia, but could secure a full-time role to show off his ultra-athletic game to anchor the secondary. Maybe this unit could be a matchup bye play or DFS cheap lineup filler if their running game clicks and they are more competitive than expected.

Defensive Line

Starters: LDE Romeo Okwara, RDE Trey Flowers, LDT Michael Brockers, RDT John Penisini
Backups: LDE Austin Bryant, RDE Julian Okwara, DT Da'Shawn Hand, DT Levi Onwuzurike [R], DT Alim McNeill [R], DL Nick Williams, DT John Atkins, DE Charles Harris

Starting DL: Despite a coaching staff change, the Lions re-signed Romeo Okwara, who has been a bright spot on an otherwise dismal defense. 2020 was a career year for Okwara with 44 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, and 10 sacks. Despite having bigger offers in free agency, he opted to stay in Detroit. He and Tre Flowers will move to outside linebacker roles in base looks, but very few defenses remain in the base form the majority of the time in today's NFL. In addition to retaining Okwara, the Lions also brought in Michael Brockers to help anchor the line. Although he was the longest-tenured Ram, Brockers was asked to take a pay cut. He refused and was then traded to Detroit in a salary dump move. Last season, John Peninsini showed some acumen as a rookie in being able to stop the run, but the rookie third round pick Alim McNeill could push him for a starting spot.

Backup DL: There was very little movement in this group. Austin Bryant could end up playing more OLB and split outside to increase his effectiveness. Julian Okwara will continue to get to play with his brother, which was one of the determining factors in Romeo Okwara staying with Detroit. The Lions added Levi Onwuzurike in the second round of the Draft. Though somewhat undersized, he possesses very good athleticism and is an upfield penetrator that can disrupt backfields and stop the run. The Lions followed-up by adding Alim McNeill in the third round. McNeill has the gap-plugging skills of a classic nosetackle, but the athleticism of an outside rusher. He is likely to play 3-technique defensive tackle with Detroit, but can also play nose and could work his way into being a starter sooner rather than later. Hand, like Onwuzurike and Brockers, can play multiple spots on the interior line

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, SLB Jamie Collins, MLB Jahlani Tavai
Backups: LB Alex Anzalone, MLB Shaun Dion Hamilton, MLB Derrick Barnes [R], OLB Robert McCray

Starting LBs: Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense meant big changes to the underwhelming linebacker group. Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones were jettisoned from the unit. The responsibilities of Collins, Reeves-Maybin, and Tavai will shift dramatically as well. Projecting their roles is difficult, but Jamie Collins is positionless and can play multiple linebacker spots. Rookie fourth round pick Derrick Barnes and former Saint Alex Anzalone could also end up starting with a good camp and preseason. Anzalone knows the defensive coordinator from their time together in New Orleans, which gives him a possible leg up as the team installs a new defense.

Backup LBs: The mandate to add competition to this position group is clearly underway. Alex Anzalone was obviously recruited because of his time with Head Coach Dan Campbell when both were members of the Saints. The Lions claimed Shaun Dion-Hamilton off waivers when Washington released him and brought him in to "mix it up" according to Coach Campbell. Derrick Barnes is short, but his arm length and explosiveness as an off-ball linebacker and pass rusher make him a unique prospect that Detroit could deploy in multiple ways.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Quinton Dunbar, CB Jeff Okudah, FS Tracy Walker, S Dean Marlowe,
Backups: SS Will Harris, CB Amani Oruwariye, CB Corn Elder, SS C.J. Moore, CB Ifeatu Melifonwu [R]

Starting DBs: In addition to battling a core injury throughout 2020, rookie Jeff Okudah looked overmatched in coverage. The Quinton Dunbar signing gives the group a much-needed veteran presence to take some of the pressure off Okudah and whoever starts at nickel corner. Harris should be a full-time player now that a new regime has been installed. Matt Patricia was inconsistent with Walker's usage, which muted the impact that his physical gifts could have on the game. Marlowe was the #3 safety for the Bills behind Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, but he should start over the 2019 third-round pick Harris, who will likely be the third safety in subpackages.

Backup DBs: Corn Elder previously played for the Carolina Panthers and gives the Lions some experienced depth. Outside of Elder, however, the roster is thin. C.J. Moore has only been a special teams contributor for the Lions. Rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu is an option that can defend larger receivers because of his bigger frame, but has the athleticism to run with smaller pass catchers as well. He can also play safety in a pinch.