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Team Previews

Detroit Lions 2021 Fantasy Football Preview

by Pat Kerrane
Updated On: June 28, 2021, 12:15 pm ET

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2020 Stats (rank)

Total Offense: 5,603 (20th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 44 (14th)
Offensive Plays: 991 (27th)
Pass Attempts: 582 (13th)
Rush Attempts: 367 (30th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 360 (1st)
Unaccounted for Carries: 243 (3rd)

Coaching Staff

Dan Campbell opened his introductory press conference as the Lions new head coach by saying, "I'm excited to be here, beyond belief. What I'm going to have to do is make sure that I contain myself."

He did not.

Campbell's ultra-football-guy persona caused panic in the fantasy football streets. And Campbell didn't help the situation when he later said on a podcast that he'd talked to Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp about bringing an actual pet lion to practice "on a big-ass chain." Campbell was 100% joking, but there's a grain of truth in every joke, even the ones about letting a lion bite off your arm in exchange for a Super Bowl.

Perhaps I only feel this way because I've let too many taeks fly freely on podcasts over the years - but I'm not completely sold that Campbell will be a disaster in Detroit. While Campbell's approach to media appearances may have all the subtlety of a keg stand, it truly does not matter how he comes across to fantasy managers. What will make a difference is how Campbell resonates with his players in private. Campbell is a former NFL tight end who has talked about his desire to build better working relationships with players, and who was hired as Miami's interim head coach in 2015 primarily for his ability to motivate a demoralized team.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Campbell will turn out to be an offensive guru. Campbell is on the record arguing for suboptimal extra point attempts. And only eight games into his head coaching career, he fired his offensive coordinator for not running the ball enough. But I am holding out some hope that Campbell won't simply run the ball and grind the clock.

First of all, his vision of shifting to a more run heavy attack with Ryan Tannehill at the helm has actually aged incredibly well. And second, Campbell wasn't out of football for the last five seasons. He was assistant head coach and tight ends coach under Sean Payton, whom Campbell credits for a majority of his coaching lessons. I'm not saying that Campbell is going to coach this team like Payton would. But given how convinced fantasy managers are that Campbell is going to run his offense like a caveman, there's upside if he simply coaches like John Gruden instead of Jeff Fisher.

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Passing Game

QB: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle 
WR: Breshad Perriman, Quintez Cephus
WR: Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond
WR: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Geronimo Allison
TE: T.J. Hockenson, Darren Fells

Despite my attempts to keep an open mind about the Dan Campbell experiment, this passing game is incredibly difficult to get excited about. Last year's Lions team had five players with 20+ targets who had an average depth of target of 12 or higher. Incoming QB Jared Goff supported zero such wide receivers last season. The closest thing to "deep threats" in the Rams Offense last year were Van Jefferson (11.3 aDOT) and Josh Reynolds (11 aDOT). Primary Rams receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods each had aDOTs below 7.0. 

This could be a tough scene for Breshad Perriman, who has revived his career over the last three seasons by operating as an effective deep threat, with aDOTs of 18.4, 16.3 and 15.4 in one-year stints with the Browns, Buccaneers and Jets. Tyrell Williams could find Goff similarly limiting. Williams missed the 2020 season with a shoulder injury but he had an aDOT of 13.7 with the Raiders in 2019 and an aDOT of 12.6 with the Chargers in 2018. 

Perriman and Williams are strong bets to lead the Lions in routes run, but given the lack of overlap between their skillsets and Goff's, there could be plenty of targets available for shallower route runners. This has created some enthusiasm for Amon-Ra St. Brown, the Lions fourth round pick who is expected to play out of the slot. Despite being a Day 3 pick in a shallow draft class, St. Brown is an intriguing prospect. He broke out as a junior in 2020 and declared early for the draft, both of which are critically important for wide receiver prospects. However, even elite wide receivers tend not to run a full complement of routes in their rookie seasons. It's likely that St. Brown splits time with Quintez Cephus or another Lions wide receiver as he gets up to speed.

With a quarterback who will not consistently throw the deep ball, despite outside wide receivers built to run deep routes, and with a rookie slot receiver in a rotational role, this offense is starting to resemble the 2019 Raiders. Which means we finally found something to get excited about: T.J. Hockenson. Operating under conditions similar to the ones that facilitated Darren Waller's 2019 breakout, T.J. Hockenson looks primed to become the engine of an NFL passing attack.

Jared Goff's love of the tight end has been somewhat obscured by Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett splitting reps over the last two seasons. They combined for a 22% target share last season, while Kupp led the team at 24% and Woods was second with 23%. The year prior, Higbee and Everett combined for a 29% target share with Woods at 23% and Kupp at 22%. When Everett was hurt for the final five games of 2019, Higbee went ballistic, averaging 21.4 PPR points per game on a 27% target share. Hockenson is already coming off a healthy target share of 18% and a TE5 finish in PPR, but this could be the season that he emerges as the next elite fantasy tight end.

Running Game

RB: D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson
OL (L-R): Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell

If you're familiar with my past work, you probably aren't expecting me to tell you who passes the eye test, but D'Andre Swift can play. His rookie rushing numbers weren't great, however. Swift was RB22 in PFF's breakaway percentage, RB34 in elusive rating and RB24 in NFL Next Gen's success rate--although his numbers look a bit better adjusted for offensive line and stacked boxes. Where Swift really shines, other than on tape (I'm a film guy now), is as a receiver. Swift was RB5 in yards per route run last year, besting receiving stars like Aaron Jones and Dalvin Cook. With both Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn coming from offenses that heavily utilized receiving running backs last season--as well as the aforementioned lack of target competition--there's a clear path to Swift being used heavily in the receiving game. If he's also used around the goal line, Swift can be a high-end fantasy running back without being a workhorse.

It's a good thing Swift has a path to strong fantasy value without a workhorse role, because he's unlikely to have that kind of usage. Lynn blew up fantasy twitter in May when he sat down with the Athletic and said:

"Jamaal is what I’d call a classic “A” back. I like to break the backs down into A and B. My “A” backs are normally my bigger backs. They can run between the tackles, block probably a little better than a “B” back, they can also run the perimeter. I can leave those guys in there for all three downs.

My “B” back comes in, he’s a guy that sometimes I want to use in space more. He’s my speed-in-space guy. I feel like Jamaal would be an outstanding “A” back. I like his energy, I like his pad level and the way he runs the football between the tackles."

The quote wasn't as bad as some made it out to be. Swift isn't backing up Williams. But this still sounds very much like a committee, with Williams soaking up a decent amount of the two-down work. The key question will who gets used at the goal line. If Williams has a meaningful edge on Swift there, he's a steal at his RB42 ADP. On the other hand, if Swift pairs goal line work with his borderline elite receiving profile, he's a value at RB16. Given Swift's advantage as a receiver on a team that should have plenty of check-downs, I'm more interested in Swift at ADP.

Both running backs should benefit from solid offensive line play. The Lions added Penei Sewell with the seventh pick in the NFL draft and got strong play from LT Taylor Decker and C Frank Ragnow last season. They're not quite as strong at guard, but PFF ranks them a the NFL's 10th best unit overall.

Win Total

The Lions have an over/under of 5 wins on PointsBet.

Per Warren Sharp, the Lions have the fourth most difficult schedule in the league; brutal, considering that they're coming off a five-win season and have a new quarterback and coaching staff. Still, Campbell won five of his 12 games in Miami with a team that went 8-8 the previous year and 1-3 to start 2015. Five wins strikes me as about right for the Lions this year, but I'm not willing to bet that this team manages just four wins in a 17-game season. Campbell might not lead the NFL's next offensive revolution, but I truly do not think his team is going to quit on him. Give me a mouthful of kneecaps, and the over.