This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell is 27-21 with the Lions and has led the team to the playoffs twice in his three-year tenure. In the 15 years before Caldwell’s arrival, five coaches and two interim coaches led the team to a 77-163 record (including the only 0-16 finish in NFL history) and only two playoff appearances. In comparison to his predecessors, Caldwell has had massive success — he’s yet to finish more than a game under .500 — but for a franchise without a playoff win since 1991 that might not be good enough. In the props market only three coaches currently have higher implied odds than Caldwell (+1,050) to be the first NFL head coach to lose his job this season — which is ridiculous, given that he took over a team that was 11-21 the two years before he arrived. For the Lions, 2017 is about getting back to the playoffs (and maybe winning a postseason game). For ownership, 2017 should be about not overreacting if that doesn’t happen.
It’s sometimes easy to mock Caldwell. He’s an expressionless sphinx with a Lions ball cap — but he’s also (probably) a good football coach. People undermine his 53-43 coaching record, but they shouldn’t. Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach and the assistant HC with the Colts for seven years (2002-08), Caldwell was a natural successor to Tony Dungy when he retired after the 2008 season. In his two years (2009-10) with a healthy Manning, Caldwell went 24-8 and took the Colts to the Super Bowl. His record was 0.750. Dungy’s record with the Colts was 0.759. With Manning, Caldwell basically was Dungy.
But people don’t remember that. All they remember is that A) Caldwell inherited a good situation and B) when Manning was unexpectedly sidelined for an entire season the team self-destructed with a 2-14 season. All of that’s true — but Caldwell helped develop Manning. He worked to create the situation he inherited, and he should get credit for that. Also, it’s partially Caldwell’s fault that the team played so poorly in 2011 — but it was a bad team assembled by General Manager Chris Polian, who didn’t construct the Colts with a Manning-less world in mind. I don’t think that season should be held against Caldwell. And what does it matter that the team went 2-14? Without Manning, the Colts weren’t making the playoffs anyway. Would a 5-11 season really have been any better? Would that have convinced owner Jim Irsay that Caldwell was a good coach?
I can’t believe I’m making a pro-Caldwell case, but I guess that’s what I’m doing. After his dismissal from the Colts — whom Caldwell did the ultimate favor by losing enough games to acquire the No. 1 overall pick and subsequently Andrew Luck — Caldwell joined the Ravens as the quarterbacks coach for the 2012 season. Following the team’s Week 14 loss, OC Cam Cameron was fired and Caldwell was named the interim OC. With Caldwell as the play-caller, the Ravens stormed through the AFC, beating the Colts (his former team), the Broncos (Manning’s new team), and the Patriots (his longtime nemesis). In the Super Bowl, the Ravens scored 34 points. During the postseason, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 1,140 yards and 11 touchdowns (to no interceptions), sporting an obscene mark of 10.8 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). Caldwell deserves immense credit for the role he played in Baltimore’s Super Bowl win.
After serving as the Ravens OC for anther season (2013), Caldwell was hired by the Lions, with whom he’s been more than respectable. He’s especially done a strong job helping quarterback Matthew Stafford develop:
- Before Caldwell (2009-13): 59.5 percent completion rate, 6.5 AY/A
- With Caldwell (2014-16): 64.3 percent, 7.2 AY/A
If for no other reason than the potential negative impact his departure might have on Stafford, Caldwell shouldn’t be fired after this season almost regardless of the team’s record.
Whether he’s coordinating or coaching, Caldwell’s offenses are predictable: They skew heavily toward the pass. Even when they’re paired with good defensive units and aren’t forced to throw, they throw. In his seven full years as HC or OC, never has Caldwell’s offense been outside the top 12 in pass/run ratio. On average, they’ve been 5.3 of 32 teams. Never have they been in the top 12 in rushing attempts. In fact, only once have they been in the top 24. Over the last three years, the Lions have been 3.7 and 28.7 of 32 in pass/run ratio and rushing attempts. For the Lions, almost every down is a passing down.
Earlier in his career, Caldwell oversaw offenses that flew down the field. His Colts and Ravens units combined were 2.5 of 32 in neutral pace. Each year, his offense was a top-five unit in rate of play. With the Lions, however, Caldwell has slowed way down. Over the last three years, they’ve been 25.7 of 32 in pace. As a result, even though the offense skews heavily toward the pass, it’s been in the top 10 in passing attempts only once in the last three years.
Amazingly, the offense under Caldwell operates almost independently of whatever happens with the defense. In 2014, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s unit was second in yards and third in points. The offense used a slow-and-throw system. After interior linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley left via free agency, the defense was mediocre; the offense, still slow-and-throw. In 2017, it’s probable that OC Jim Bob Cooter — who has worked under Caldwell for six years (2009-11, 2014-16) — will have a typically Caldwellian system: The Lions will advance the ball through the air and take their time doing it.
The Lions have had little turnover at the skills positions. On the offensive line, though, they’re drastically different:
- QB: Matthew Stafford
- RB: Theo Riddick/Dwayne Washington/Zach Zenner –> Ameer Abdullah/Riddick/Zenner
- WR: Golden Tate
- WR: Marvin Jones
- WR: Anquan Boldin –> Kenny Golladay
- TE: Eric Ebron
- LT: Taylor Decker –> Greg Robinson/Cyrus Kouandjio/Decker
- LG: Laken Tomlinson/Graham Glasgow –> Glasgow
- C: Travis Swanson/Glasgow –> Swanson
- RG: Larry Warford –> T.J. Lang
- RT: Riley Reiff –> Rick Wagner
Abdullah was off to a hot start last year before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. He represents an immediate upgrade to the backfield and is expected to function as the lead back. The slot savant Boldin is now with the Bills, and the third-round rookie Golladay is expected to serve as the third wide receiver in the starting lineup.
The offensive line is in transition. Last year it was 31st with 3.49 adjusted line yards per carry and 18th with a 6.1 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders). It’s not as if the line couldn’t use some change. At the same time, many of the linemen haven’t played together before, and there’s uncertainty about who will be starting. It’s possible that the line could struggle to come together as a cohesive unit.
Last year the left tackle Decker had an above-average 80.7 Pro Football Focus grade, but he’s recovering from a shoulder surgery and might start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Decker will likely come off the PUP during the season, but till then the recently acquired tandem of Robinson and Kouandjio will attempt to fill in. Robinson with the Rams had a poor 43.0 PFF grade in 2016 while Kouandjio has started only seven games in his three-year career.
Glasnow swung between left guard and center as a rookie, accumulating an overall 39.1 PFF grade. He was horrible — and yet the Lions believe he’s an easy upgrade on Tomlinson, which says almost all you need to know about the 2015 first-rounder. Warford and Reiff are now with the Saints and Vikings, and replacing them are Lang and Wagner, who are significant upgrades on the right side of the line — but Lang had an offseason hip surgery and wasn’t able to participate in any team activities till training camp. As much as Lang and Wagner should help this line, it’s possible that it will still be one of the weakest in the league. PFF ranks it 24th entering the 2017 season.
On the other side of the ball, DC Teryl Austin’s unit is largely unchanged:
- DE: Ezekiel Ansah
- DT: Haloti Ngata/Khyri Thornton
- DT: A’Shawn Robinson/Tyrunn Walker –> Robinson
- DE: Devin Taylor/Kerry Hyder –> Hyder
- OLB: Kyle Van Noy/Thurston Armbrister –> Paul Worrilow
- MLB: Tahir Whitehead –> Jarrad Davis
- OLB: Josh Bynes/DeAndre Levy/Antwione Williams –> Whitehead
- CB: Darius Slay
- CB: Nevin Lawson
- SCB: Quandre Diggs –> D.J. Hayden/Diggs
- SS: Tavon Wilson
- FS: Glover Quin
Last year the Lions had the league’s second-fewest sacks with 26, and they’ve done nothing to upgrade their pass rushing. Instead, they’ve changed the composition of the linebacking unit. While the trio of Whitehead, the free agent acquisition Worrilow, and the rookie Davis aren’t likely to be any worse than what the Lions put on the field last year, it’s unlikely that they’ll be significantly better. Since the departures of Suh and Fairley after the 2014 season, the defense hasn’t been great at rushing the passer or stopping the run. PFF ranks the Lions front seven as the third-worst unit in the league.
While the four starters in the secondary are all relatively solid — they all have PFF grades no worse than average — the nickelback duo of Hayden and Diggs is suspect. Still, this unit is probably not as bad as it seemed last year. The Lions were dead last in the league with a 72.7 percent completion rate allowed and second to last with 33 touchdowns passing allowed — and those numbers are awful — but they were just 19th in passing yards allowed. Under Austin, the Lions have ranked in the teens in defensive passing yardage each season.
For an offense that over the last three years has been 21st, 2oth, and 19th in yards and 20th, 18th, and 22nd in scoring, this unit has a number of noteworthy players.
Matthew Stafford, QB
The quarterback formerly known as “Matt,” John Matthew was on his way to a respectable low-end QB1 campaign for the first 13 weeks of the season — and he was doing it for the first time in his career without wide receiver-of-the-generation Calvin Johnson — and then he dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand against the Bears in Week 14. After that injury, he wasn’t the same quarterback (per our Trends tool):
- DraftKings points per game (PPG): 19.64 (Weeks 1-13) vs. 17.00 (Weeks 14-17)
- Plus/Minus: +2.02 vs. +0.06
- Consistency Rating: 66.7 percent vs. 50.0
- Completion percentage: 67.2 vs. 60.3
- Yards per attempt: 7.5 vs. 6.9
- Touchdowns per game (TDPG), passing: 1.75 vs. 0.75
- Interceptions per game: 0.42 vs. 1.25
- Touchdowns per game (TDPG), rushing: 0.0 vs. 0.5
Stafford had two rushing scores last year — and both of them came in the last month of the season. He had only four carries inside the 10-yard line, but two of those came in the last four games. Because of those uncharacteristic rushing touchdowns, his post-injury fantasy production was a lot better than his actual performance.
Most people aren’t drawing a clear distinction between Stafford’s 2016 pre-/post-injury production, so they don’t see how much better he was to start the year. Because of this, people might not appreciate Cooter’s impact on Stafford. In 2014 and for the first seven weeks of 2015, the Lions OC was Joe Lombardi. After a disappointing 19-point performance against the Vikings, Lombardi was fired and Cooter was installed as the interim OC (and made official OC after the season). Here’s how Stafford has done with Cooter compared to Lombardi:
- DraftKings PPG: 19.85 vs. 17.41
- Completion percentage: 66.6 vs. 61.7
- Yards per attempt: 7.3 vs. 7.1
- TDPG, passing: 1.76 vs. 1.49
- Interceptions per game: 0.56 vs. 0.91
And if we discount the four 2016 games in which Stafford was injured and Cooter’s first game as OC in 2015 (when he had less than the usual time to prepare for the week’s game and was transitioning into his new role), the numbers are even better:
- DraftKings PPG: 20.86
- Completion percentage: 68.3
- Yards per attempt: 7.4
- TDPG, passing: 2.0
- Interceptions per game: 0.35
When Stafford has had A) a non-dislocated middle finger and B) Cooter calling plays, he’s quietly been one of the best quarterbacks in the league. If he can maintain his efficiency and if the Lions pick up the pace while remaining a pass-heavy team, Stafford has an outside shot of leading the league in passing yards. He’s currently +1,600 — and he’s one of just three active quarterbacks to pass for over 5,000 yards in a season. Right now Stafford has an average draft position (ADP) of 113.3 in DRAFT best ball leagues. He’s a strong pivot play on the quarterbacks being selected two to three rounds ahead of him. I prefer him to several of the quarterbacks highlighted in my piece on the top 100 NFL players.
As a daily fantasy asset, Stafford has exhibited some clear and exploitable patterns in the Caldwell era. Over the last three years, he’s been significantly better at home (+3.25) and as a favorite (+2.73) than on the road (-0.06) and as an underdog (+0.71). As a home favorite, he’s done especially well with 21.28 DraftKings PPG, a +4.17 Plus/Minus, and a 70.6 percent Consistency Rating. A potential option in cash games under these circumstances, Stafford has also had an ownership rate of just 4.7 percent in large-field tournaments as a home favorite. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of Stafford’s reasonable ownership as a home favorite. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Lions when they’re playing at Ford Field. If you want to stack Stafford with Tate, Jones, Ebron, or Riddick, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Ameer Abdullah, RB
An electrifying playmaker as an undergraduate at Nebraska, where he was a 40-game workhorse in his three final seasons, averaging 127.9 scrimmage YPG and 1.1 TDPG and contributing as a return man (one punt return touchdown), Abdullah entered the league in 2015 as a second-round selection ready to run all over the NFL. That didn’t happen. Abdullah wasn’t bad as a rookie, but he failed to distinguish himself from the aged Joique Bell and third-year Riddick. He was the best back of the group, but he had only 143 carries and 38 targets on the season, and even though he started nine games only three times did he have even 18 opportunities in a contest. All season he had only three opportunities inside the 10-yard line.
His second season, though, looked as if it would be different. In Week 1 he turned 12 carries and five targets into 120 scrimmage yards, five receptions, a touchdown, and 23.0 DraftKings points — and then in Week 2 he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury. He’s now healthy and practicing as the featured back in training camp, but he’s not likely to operate as a true workhorse. In fact, it’s possible he could lead the backfield in touches and still be the least productive back of the cohort. Riddick is one of the best receiving backs in the league and is likely to steal a number of high-value targets from Abdullah. And the big-bodied Zenner and career-long goal-line vulture extraordinaire Matt Asiata are likely to steal touchdown opportunities. Last year Zenner had eight carries inside the 10. With the Vikings, Asiata had 26.
Given that Abdullah’s targets and goal-line touches are likely to be limited, he’s of precarious value. A Giovani Bernard-esque player based on his size (5’9″ and 205 lbs.), limited speed (4.60-second 40), and elite agility (6.79-second three-cone), Abdullah offers little upside at his 73.3 DRAFT ADP.
Theo Riddick, RB
Over the last two seasons no running back in the league has more than Riddick’s 133 receptions — and he missed six games last year. A wide receiver for his two middle seasons at Notre Dame, Riddick transitioned back to running back as a senior and has ostensibly stayed at that position in the NFL, but he’s best considered a slot receiver who lines up at halfback 25-50 times per game. He has more receptions (171) in his four-year career than rushes (164). As a runner, he’s one of the worst backs in the league, as evidenced by his 3.5 yards per carry, and he’s unlikely to come anywhere close to the 92 carries he had last year in Abdullah’s absence. In fact, based on his performance in games with and without Abdullah over the last two years, Riddick is likely to see less overall volume:
- Carries per game (CPG): 9.25 (without Riddick) vs. 3.39 (with Riddick)
- Targets per game (TPG): 7.12 vs. 6.06
- Receptions per game (RPG): 5.50 vs. 4.94
- YPG: 69.4 vs. 55.7
- TDPG: 0.50 vs. 0.28
Last year, Riddick played on 65.0 percent of the offensive snaps in his 10 games. In 2015, he played on only 43.6 percent. The return of Abdullah is likely to mean the regression of Riddick.
Still, Riddick has averaged 10.91 DraftKings PPG in his three years with Caldwell, and in his last two years as a more integral part of the offense he’s averaged 13.15. He’s reportedly expected to be featured more in the red zone with the departure of Boldin, and Riddick already had 11 opportunities inside the 10-yard line last year (again, in just 10 games). Even in a reduced role, Riddick offers value at his 87.9 DRAFT ADP. He’s currently being eased into training camp as he recovers from his double-wrist surgery, but he’s expected to be ready for Week 1.
Zach Zenner, RB
ZZ Top might not be a great NFL player — he has 3.8 yards per carry for his career — but last year in Weeks 16-17 he made a lot of end-of-season bottom-of-the-barrel DFS degenerates happy by turning 16.0 CPG and 4.0 TPG into 101 scrimmage YPG, 1.5 TDPG, and 22.10 DraftKings PPG at a salary of $3,200. Sometimes, volume is everything. A big-bodied (5’11″and 223 lbs.) runner with good athleticism (95th percentile SPARQ-x, per PlayerProfiler), Zenner entered the league in 2015 as an undrafted free agent superstar out of the Football Championship Subdivision, where he served for three years as an every-down workhorse at South Dakota State, turning 329.3 carries and 25.7 receptions per year into 2,285.7 yards and 21.3 touchdowns across 13.7 games. Already likely to eat into Abdullah’s goal-line work, Zenner could emerge as a Zero RB candidate in the middle of the season if Abdullah underperforms.
Golden Tate, WR
It’s easy to belittle Tate’s 1,000-yard performances in 2014 and 2016 by saying he benefited from injuries to teammates. In 2014, he was a different player in the games Calvin Johnson missed or played in injured. Similarly, last year he was a different player in the games he played without Riddick, Jones, or Ebron:
- With/without Johnson: 11/5 games, 7.7/11.8 TPG, 5.5/7.8 TPG, 66.5/119.8 YPG, 0.01/0.60 TDPG, 13.20/25.78 DraftKings PPG
- With/without Riddick, Jones, or Ebron: 8/8 games, 7.3/9.7 TPG, 5.0/6.4 RPG, 40.0/94.6 YPG, 0.13/0.38 TDPG, 9.74/19.4 DraftKings PPG
Those splits are stark, and they do suggest that at times Tate has been the team’s best receiver because he’s faced diminished competition for targets. Nevertheless, he’s a versatile receiver who can play outside and in the slot, and he’s even gotten 21 carries under Caldwell. Most importantly, he’s had at least 128 targets each of the last three seasons, and he’s been efficient with his 68.8 percent catch rate.
Expected to play primarily in the slot now that Boldin is gone, Tate should continue to be a target magnet for Stafford. With a yearly receiving line of 93.3/1,073.7/4.7 in Detroit, Tate is a low-upside, limited-downside investment at his 51.2 DRAFT ADP. Even though Jones was the team’s deep threat last year, Tate led the starting receivers with 1.78 yards per route run (YPRR), per PFF.
Marvin Jones, WR
The 2016 preseason hype surrounding Jones was absurd. Unsurprisingly, after the first five games of the season — when he looked like an All-Pro with his 27/519/3 stat line — Jones disappointed for the final 12 weeks as Tate emerged, averaging 2.8 RPG for 41.1 YPG, 0.1 TDPG, and 7.54 DraftKings PPG. Jones at times was dominant, but he was miscast as the No. 1 receiver. Not since his 2007 senior season in high school has Jones had 1,000 yards receiving in a campaign. He has good height (6’2″), elite agility (6.81-second three-cone), and solid speed for his size (4.46-second 40, 199 lbs.) — and he’s been a good route-runner since college — but he’s ideally suited as a field-stretching WR2.
That said, relative to Tate, Jones is undervalued at his 106.2 DRAFT ADP. Here’s how they did last year in their 15 games together, when they were competing against each other for targets and production:
- Tate: 8.3 TPG for 5.5/62.1/0.20
- Jones: 6.9 for 3.7/62.0/0.27
Tate has the edge in targets and receptions, but they’re comparable in yardage and Jones has the edge in scoring. What if this season the offensive line is better than expected and Stafford has more time to throw deep targets to Jones? What if Tate gets injured and misses some games? Or what if through random chance Jones simply gets more targets than he normally gets?
Entering the league as a fifth-rounder, Jones saw little action as a rookie in 2012, but since then he’s been a rock-solid supplementary receiver, averaging 57 receptions, 819.3 yards, and six touchdowns per season and 11.57 DraftKings PPG. He probably won’t lead the Lions in receptions or touchdowns, but he has a real chance to lead the team in yards receiving.
Kenny Golladay, WR
When I say what I’m about to say, I do so not as some johnny-come-lately but as someone who talked about Golladay back in 2015: He might be the best wide receiver in the 2017 rookie class. He probably isn’t — but he might be. He’s big (6’4″ and 218 lbs.), fast (4.50-second 40), and a top-100 NFL pick on a team that has an opening at its third wide receiver spot and could use a strong presence on the field. Most importantly, Golladay was productive in college. At North Dakota in the Football Championship Subdivision, Golladay was the team’s third receiver as a true freshman in 2012, and then as a sophomore he broke out to lead the team in receptions and touchdowns. Transferring to Northern Illinois, Golladay redshirted in 2014 per NCAA rules and then led the Huskies in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons (2015-16).
A versatile player, Golladay returned a punt for a touchdown at North Dakota and also had 33 rushes for 217 yards and three touchdowns in his three final seasons, averaging 1,128.7 scrimmage yards and 10 all-purpose touchdowns in 12.3 games per campaign. And here’s what’s most notable about Golladay’s production: It wasn’t coming in high-scoring offenses slinging the ball all over the field. He balled out on teams that weren’t great. As a result, his raw production is all the more impressive, and he was a market share superstar, capturing a collective 37.0 and 46.0 percent of his teams’ receiving yards and touchdowns in his three final seasons.
Golladay isn’t likely to do much as a rookie — most third-rounders don’t — but he’s still worth some exposure at his 207.8 DRAFT ADP. As for dynasty and rookie drafts, he’s a priority target.
Eric Ebron, TE
Ebron is miscast as a tight end. He’s a big slot receiver who sometimes is forced to play inline and block — but Ebron is a horrible blocker. Last year he had a poor 30.1 PFF run-blocking grade and merely below-average 65.5 pass-blocking grade. This year the Lions are expected to use more 12-personnel sets with Ebron playing as a a receiver and new tight end Darren Fells blocking, so theoretically Ebron could get many of the targets that went to Boldin last year. Yet to play a full NFL season, Ebron hasn’t been reliable since being selected 10th overall in the 2014 draft, but last year he had his best campaign yet with 61 receptions and 711 yards on 85 targets in 13 games. He had only one touchdown — but his scoring total will likely regress positively in 2017. I doubt that Ebron is a good player — last year the uninspiring Jason Witten and Ryan Griffin matched him with 1.54 YPRR — but he’s acceptable at his 101.8 DRAFT ADP.
In the futures market the Lions currently have a 2017 win total of 8.0 games with a +155 over and -190 under. They’re also +300 to make the playoffs and -400 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Lions the 11th-worst schedule for 2017. The reasons for not betting on the Lions are sound: They’re missing their left tackle, their run defense is suspect, and last year they overperformed their 7.7-win Pythagorean Expectation. That said, Caldwell’s record with the Lions is encouraging, and he’s made a habit throughout his coaching career of outperforming mathematical (if not actual) expectations. Over his six seasons as HC, he’s outperformed his Pythagorean Expectation by an average of 0.98 wins per year. If we remove the Manning-less 2011, Caldwell’s Pythagorean outperformance jumps to 1.44 wins per year. Aside from 2011, Caldwell has never underperformed expectations.
The Lions seem likely to win 7-9 games. Given the current lines and Caldwell’s past history, I’d bet on the Lions to go over eight games — and if they do that they have a good chance of making the playoffs, as they’ve done in two of three years, so if you’re putting only one unit on the Lions consider the +300 to make the playoffs. If you want to hedge by putting a unit on the -190 under for the win total, that’s fine. In fact, I like the strategy. In that scenario, if the Lions go over eight wins and make the playoffs, you’re up three units. If the Lions go under eight wins and miss the playoffs, you’re still up a little over half a unit. If the Lions go over eight wins and miss the playoffs, then you are screwed — but at least you had a good process. It’s possible that the Lions could be 9-7 or better and miss the playoffs. Stuff like that happens, but it’s unlikely.
The Lions are currently +6,600 to win the Super Bowl, +2,800 to win the NFC, and +600 to win the NFC North. Not to be a nihilist, but the Lions haven’t won their division since 1993 and a playoff game since 1991. I’m passing.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Lions Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz and contributed research to this article.