2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,484 (22nd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 35 (22nd)
Offensive Plays: 1,056 (19th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 629 (17th)
Rush Attempts: 427 (21st)
Unaccounted for Targets: 37 (31st)
Unaccounted for Carries: Zero (32nd)
That the 2021 Lions did not have the worst offense in the league was something of a miracle. Matthew Stafford was swapped out for Jared Goff, and Kenny Golladay was “replaced” by fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. And yet, seven teams scored fewer points, including a club quarterbacked by Matt Ryan. The Lions’ “accomplishment” took heroic efforts from all involved, including head coach Dan Campbell, who confiscated play-calling duties from then OC Anthony Lynn in Week 9. Despite his meat-and-potatoes persona, Campbell had no interest in leading the league’s most buttoned-up attack, going to great lengths to spark the down-field passing game even though the best option was waiver wire claimant Josh Reynolds. Under Lynn, Goff’s average depth of target was a microscopic 6.6. Under Campbell, it spiked to 7.4. That was still in the bottom half of the league, but a 0.8-yard increase on the fly is no small thing. Of course, the approach also grew more vanilla as the team grew more competitive. Under play-caller Lynn, the 0-8 Lions were forced to throw 64 percent of the time. As the contests grew closer — Detroit went 3-5-1 down the stretch — Campbell attempted to hide his personnel deficiencies with a 46 percent run rate.
Unfortunately for Campbell, the skill corps cavalry has not arrived, with the important exception of No. 12 overall pick Jameson Williams. The problem is that Williams is expected to begin training camp on the trainer’s table as he rehabs his January knee injury. The Lions lost zero carries and only 37 targets from last year’s roster, astoundingly little turnover for a group that went 3-13-1. Campbell seemed to publicly flirt with a mid-season benching of Goff last October, saying the quarterback “needs to step up more than he has,” but he lacked a legitimate alternative. The same is true now, with the Lions “running it back” with Tim Boyle as the No. 2. Boyle, to put it bluntly, is one of the worst quarterbacks on any NFL roster.
This remains Goff’s offense and that remains a major problem for a team that has not won more than six games since 2017. Despite Campbell’s opening up of the passing attack last fall, Goff cleared 250 yards passing just one time after Thanksgiving. Campbell was passing smarter, not harder, and it was the only viable approach with a quarterback who has never generated offense on his own. That is going to remain a severe challenge for Goff in 2022, especially for as long as rookie Williams remains sidelined. St. Brown, Williams, D’Andre Swift, D.J. Chark and T.J. Hockenson have the makings of a decent little skill corps, but they are not a group that is going to elevate Goff beyond strict QB2 streamer status. Even when Goff has an appealing matchup, you should typically be able to find a better option on the waiver wire. This is not the place to be hunting for spiked weeks.
It is a different story with the individual pass catchers. One of the league’s very best players down the stretch of his rookie campaign, St. Brown closed with 401 receiving yards over his final five games, the fourth highest total in football. He averaged 3.26 yards per route run in the process, putting him behind only Deebo Samuel and Ja’Marr Chase. He even survived two Boyle starts to catch at least eight balls each of the final six weeks. St. Brown may have been the only targets show in town, but he translated it into real-deal statistical dominance. He was given a golden opportunity and seized it. For the season, he caught 90 passes and committed zero drops.
What does it mean for 2022? Firmly installed in the slot, St. Brown isn’t necessarily harmed by perimeter additions Williams and Chark. He is threatened by a generally improved offensive environment, even if it is not like the Lions acquired Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. There is a big difference in fighting for looks with Williams and Chark compared to Reynolds and Kalif Raymond. This is also an offense that will remain run heavy and perhaps slower paced. Campbell slowed things down after replacing Lynn. Although unquestionably the biggest fish in this little passing pond, St. Brown is still best hedged on the WR2/3 borderline. You could miss out on a second-year eruption, but you also protect against last year’s fast finish being an environment-induced fluke.
Beyond St. Brown, the next best targets bet is T.J. Hockenson, whose per-game marks of five catches, seven targets and 49 yards last season were all new career highs. Of course, his yards per catch dipped below 10.0, while he once again dealt with injury. Hockenson has now missed at least four games in 2-of-3 NFL seasons. Hockenson also struggled with the waves of attention opposing defenses were able to throw his way before the Lions finally established other passing-game threats in St. Brown and Reynolds. Hockenson was held below 50 yards seven times in 12 contests, and caught fewer than five balls six times. He drew a paltry nine red zone targets, as many as role player Mo Alie-Cox and fewer than Cole Kmet. It is fair to wonder if Hockenson can maintain his 21 percent target share in 2022. If he can’t, his pedestrian career mark of 1.46 yards per route run makes it hard to foretell another step forward. Hockenson is a limited ceiling, mid-range TE1.
Jameson Williams offers the greatest long-term potential with the most short-term question marks. Officially questionable for training camp as he completes his recovery from his torn ACL, Williams is unofficially questionable for Week 1. When he does return, it is uncertain if his Tyreek Hill-ian deep speed will be all the way back right off the bat. Likely behind St. Brown and Hockenson in the targets pecking order to begin his career, Williams will be a fantasy doughnut waiting to happen. He also has the kind of skill-set capable of flipping matchups on just 1-2 catches, a la Will Fuller or Marquez Valdes-Scantling. 2023 and beyond is the real focus for Williams on the digital gridiron, but he can be a 2022 factor even with Goff at the controls. He is a textbook low-risk, high-reward WR5/6 flier.
Not that Williams is going to have a monopoly on outside looks following his debut. He will be competing with D.J. Chark and his surprisingly robust $10 million contract. Coming off two miserable years in Jacksonville following his 2019 breakout, Chark finally has a real coach in Campbell, but he is a poor fit with Goff’s game. Nearly all of Goff’s deep damage in Los Angeles had to be directly schemed by coach Sean McVay. Campbell did an admirable job of following in McVay’s footsteps as the stretch-run play-caller, but there is only so much water to be divined from this well. Williams will also be the shiny new toy upon his return. Chark feels likely to max out as a dart throw WR4, with the downside for much more. It is “wait till next year” for the 25-year-old free agent to be.
Beyond Chark, Josh Reynolds remains, but he will be a strict role player with Chark and Williams now in tow. 28-year-old (in August) Kalif Raymond somehow posted a 48/576/4 receiving line in 2021, but that was a testament to the Lions’ lack of target alternatives. It is not a given Raymond survives the year on the 53-man roster.
The RB15 by average PPR points as a rookie in 2020, D’Andre Swift crashed the top 10 in 2021, finishing as the RB8. His uptick in receptions from 46 to 62 was the main driver, though he also rushed for nearly 100 more yards (617-521). His overall touchdowns fell from 10-7, while he was once again limited to 13 games. That made him a more distant RB15 by total PPR points. The absences came in Weeks 13-16, a calamity for fantasy managers. It is fair to wonder if the Lions will trust Swift with bigger workloads this season considering his durability woes, though they have not upgraded the group behind him. Declining veteran Jamaal Williams remains the No. 2, with roster fillers Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike and Jermar Jefferson rounding out the group. Swift is a safe RB1 with the all-around game to crash the top five. It helps that the offense remains run committed and the overall roster has improved enough to perhaps double last season’s paltry win total. That means closer games and more run-friendly game script.
The RB43 by total PPR points last year, 27-year-old Williams could be in danger of getting eclipsed by some of the anonymous backs behind him. Never a picture of efficiency, Williams’ 2021 marks of 3.9 yards per run and 6.0 yards per catch leave him vulnerable. That latter number is simply unacceptable. Williams is a pure insurance back who would likely still struggle for RB2 value in the event of a Swift injury.
The Lions are typically installed around 6.5. This is an improved club in a weakened division, but that is still a robust number for a team led by Jared Goff. Save for No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson — and we realize this is a big “save for” — an undermanned defense remains largely unchanged from 2021. Warren Sharp does chart the Lions as having the league’s fifth-easiest schedule, one that includes several winnable games in the first month before a Week 6 bye. I just ultimately can’t shake the feeling that this offseason’s positive vibes are a year too early, and that 5-6 wins and the under is the Lions’ most likely 2022 outcome.