August 30, 2010
By Brian Spencer
The Detroit Lions have been rewarded for their magnificent ineptitude over the past decade with a series of top-10 NFL draft picks, picks which they’ve mostly spent on offensive skill positions. Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, “Big” Mike Williams, Roy Williams, Kevin Jones… these are all guys that fantasy players have targeted at one point, and all guys who’ve mostly fallen off the radar and even out of the league entirely. I’m sure somebody out there has Big Mike, who looks to have played his way back into the league via the Seattle Seahawks, on their sleeper list this season; good luck with that.
The days of the Detroit Lions being a fantasy football butthole may soon be over, however.
I can’t remember the last time there’s been this much legitimate fantasy (and real-life) buzz surrounding the Detroit Lions’ offense. There’s some serious upside here, folks, and the discussion has to start with Megatron Johnson, who’s coming off a solid but unspectacular 2009 season in which he grabbed 67 catches for 984 yards and 5 TDs in 14 games.
Johnson enters his fourth year primed to finally join the NFL’s elite group of wide receivers. He’s been there, physically, since the day he entered the league as the second-overall pick in the ’07 draft, but for various reasons–let’s just call it being a Lion–his tantalizing talent hasn’t yet fully surfaced. It will this year.
Adding TE Tony Scheffler and WR Nate Burleson into the mix will help keep defenses more honest by preventing them from double-teaming and overly shadowing Johnson’s side of the field. By all accounts Bryant “Golf Cart” Johnson is healthy and having a much better camp than last year–he should be a decent WR3 and deep threat, though he’s irrelevant in fantasy terms–while hulking TE Brandon Pettigrew, a late first-round pick last year, seems to be inching closer and closer to full strength after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 12 last season.
It’s crucial for these four guys to make an impact and to help take the pressure off Johnson to do it by himself. If they do, and if Johnson stays healthy, I expect an improvement on his strong totals from ’08 season, when he finished with 78 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 TDs.
Johnson will be the first Detroit Lion off your fantasy draft board; more on who’s draftable and where you should take them below. Rookie RB Jahvid Best will be the second one, and I’m buying the hype from writers such as Yahoo! Sports’ Count Funston, who has him ranked a lofty #27 overall on his latest Big(ger) Board, ahead of proven fantasy studs like Greg Jennings, Miles Austin, Matt Schaub, and Tom Brady.
In addition to a strong preseason showing, Best’s meteroic rise up the preseason fantasy rankings can be attributed to two factors going in his favor:
- A favorable comparison to consensus top pick Chris Johnson. They’re both absolute burners, both hit open holes without dancing or hesitating, both can catch passes out of the backfield, and both are home-run threats (see Best’s 51-yard run, his only carry of the game, against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday). Johnson is a bit bigger at 5-11 and 200 pounds, but not by much with Best measuring 5-10 and 195. Nobody is saying Best is the second coming of Johnson, not yet anyway, but the similarities are there and just like the NFL is a copycat league, so is fantasy football. I’ve also heard comparisons to Marshall Faulk.
- He’ll line up as the starting running back behind an improved offensive line, a true franchise quarterback, and alongside a potentially potent cast of WRs and TEs–and he’ll have little competition from his backups for carries. Tireless worker and good teammate though he is, incumbent starter Kevin Smith never had much burst to begin with and has been unimpressive so far this preseason as he works his way back from a serious knee injury. Maurice Morris is a veteran vagabond who’s on the roster bubble; he’s battling second-year back Aaron Brown and journeyman DeDe Dorsey for that third spot.
Can Best handle a full workload though? That’s probably the biggest question we’re all anxiously waiting to get answered. Johnson has proved he can do it, and there’s an undersized ex-Lion named Barry Sanders (5-8, 200 pounds) who did it too, so I’m not convinced that size is the issue here. If, like Johnson and Sanders, Best can avoid taking too many big hits, we could easily be talking about him as a top-five fantasy pick next season. Johnson averaged about 22 carries per game last season, Steven Jackson about 21, and Maurice Jones-Drew just under 20: I’m looking for Best to average between 18 – 20 in his rookie season.
Finally, just how high is the fantasy ceiling for Matthew Stafford in his second season? I’ve already ticked off the weapons he’ll have at his disposal, but perhaps the most encouraging development we’ve heard about in training camp and seen on the preseason field is his improved accuracy. Coming out of Georgia a precocious 21 years old, Stafford completed just 53% of his passes (201 of 377) during his rookie campaign, but through limited action in three preseason games he’s been an efficient 34-46 for 332 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT while taking very few hits in the backfield. Of the 14 drives he’s led, 10 have ended in scores.
He’s also continuing to develop a nice rapport with Megatron, as Browns DB Sheldon Brown noted on Saturday: “Those two believe in one another even if Calvin is covered. (Stafford) believes that he is going to make the play, and he did it tonight for him.”
Though I saw him go as a QB1 in one mock draft, it’s still too early to bank on Stafford as your fantasy team’s top quarterback, especially since he can usually be had somewhere in the 8th – 10th round. I’ve got him at the top of my QB2 list, however, both because of his value as a potential trade chip if he gets off to a hot start, and because there’s a real possibility he could become a quarterback who’s somewhat interchangeable with the guy you drafted as your QB1, based on who has the stronger matchup.
Where to Draft Your Detroit Lions
+ Calvin Johnson, WR: Fantasy players drafting between 9th – 12th overall should strongly consider Megatron with their second-round pick. We think this year’s crop of preseason stud WRs is smaller than usual, and because of that I love the idea of pairing a Randy Moss or Reggie Wayne with Megatron. He likely won’t make it past the 18th overall pick.
+ Jahvid Best, RB: If you like him, put your balls on the table and take him in the top half of the third round while you still can. My colleague Mr. Thell thinks that’s too high, but if you want him, that’s the price you’ll have to pay because he’s not lasting much longer. I’m sure everybody in the ETB league is expecting me to take him 26th overall; we’ll see, guys.
I’m always leery of rolling with a rookie as my RB1, but there’s plenty of depth this year at running back to supplement the risk. Just be sure to grab some quality depth if you take the plunge here.
+ Matthew Stafford, QB: Over the past two weeks Stafford has gone from a guy who’ll almost definitely be on the board in the 10th or 11th round to one who’s being drafted more and more frequently in the 8th or 9th. If you invest in one of the six elite QBs, don’t reach on Stafford unless he’s there in the double-digit rounds; otherwise this kid could be a great value in the 8th or 9th.
+ Nate Burleson, WR: A poor man’s Derrick Mason who gets the job done with little fanfare, Burleson is getting little respect on draft day this year after two straight so-so seasons with the so-so Seahawks. Still just 29 years old, Burleson has great hands and runs crisp routes and should be on your radar, especially since he’ll likely still be there in the nebulous 13th and on rounds.
+ Brandon Pettigrew, TE: The uncertainty about his knee and the addition of Scheffler has plummeted Pettigrew down the draft board. This kid is a beast, though, and was coming on strong midway through his rookie season before going down. He’ll be there in the 14th or 15th round and is a fine TE2 with upside, especially for those with a stud entrenched at the TE1.
+ Tony Scheffler, TE: Throw out last season and think back to the 2007 and 2008 seasons when the former Bronco averaged 45 catches for 597 yards and 4 TDs. He will be involved in this offense–sometimes split out, a la Dallas Clark–and I have him ranked ahead of Pettigrew.