Every year we give our premium content members a team-by-team, player-by-player look at the NFL season that was. The coverage will be in-depth, but because the Dynasty Capsule series begins immediately after the regular season, we won’t use it to discuss free agency or the draft. Come see us in early May once Mr. Irrelevant is off the board for another 32-article series giving you the same detailed discussion you’ll see below.
Buckle up dynasty fans, because you’re about to be reminded why our motto is, “There is no off-season.”
The Detroit Lions have been making the possible look impossible since 1957, and following another majorly disappointing campaign in 2015, they enter the off-season as an organization full of question marks. After winning just one game through eight weeks, the team rallied to win six of their final eight games, leading to the return of Head Coach Jim Caldwell, and securing them the 16th pick in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft. Sorry Lions fans—when it rains, it pours.
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Stafford got off to a rough start, missing 22 games over his first two NFL seasons. However, he’s now made it through five full seasons without missing a game. There should be no more worries about him being “injury prone.” Over his past five seasons, he’s averaged 643 passing attempts per season. Though, fortunately for his arm’s sake (and the offense’s with respect to balance), his passing attempts have been trending downward (2013: 634 passing attempts; 2014: 602 passing attempts; and 2015: 592 passing attempts—the fewest he’s had since his injury-riddled start). Despite those lofty numbers, Stafford’s seen his completion percentage rise each of the last three years, posting the best completion percentage of his career last season (67.2%) where his 592 passing attempts were still good for seventh-most in the NFL.
My concerns about Stafford, however, aren’t really Stafford-related. News has just broken that Calvin Johnson has chosen to retire, and not re-join the team in 2016. Obviously, that does not help Stafford in the short term. However, let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Though some of it will still be tied up due to how his deal was restructured, Johnson’s retirement will still be freeing up a lot of money—money the organization will be able to spend to improve elsewhere, which brings me to my next point.
What’s most concerning for him is his lack of protection up front. In 2014, only three quarterbacks in the NFL were sacked more than Stafford, and last year, only five. Clearly, the Lions need help with their offensive line. Moreover, he could afford to develop more pocket awareness. He’s impressed me at times evading the sack, and then throwing the ball away as opposed to taking unnecessary risks downfield, but the top quarterbacks often find a way to not only avoid the sack, but to keep their eyes downfield, and hit their receivers after the play is broken (Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton come to mind) All that being said, Stafford will only be 28 going into next season in what should be the dawn of his quarterbacking prime.
I think Stafford is a very legitimate guy to own in dynasty right now, especially in 2QB leagues. Statistically, I think he makes for a great buy-low candidate, and someone that offers a pretty high floor as well as a high ceiling. If you’re looking to make a smart investment, board the train before it leaves the station with all your peers onboard. In other words, get your hands on him now for a relatively low price, and enjoy those dividends as he passes through his peak years. Disagree with me? Let me show you what you’re missing. Everyone has been all over Philip Rivers the past few years as a great buy because of people passing over him due to his age. I don’t disagree. But, what if you could’ve bought Rivers five years ago for a fraction of what he should have cost you then? That is exactly what you’d be doing to buy in on Stafford now.
Check out this comparison of their Year-3 through Year-7 seasons’ statistics:
Sure, Stafford’s completion percentage dipped lower than Rivers’ ever did, but Rivers didn’t post a completion percentage over 67% until his tenth season in the league (something Stafford did in 2015). I’m the last person I’d ever have expected to be making this kind of proclamation about Stafford, and in no way thought I’d be doing so when I set out to write this, but to me, after a thorough evaluation, it’s a no-brainer.
I’m just going to say it. I was extremely disappointed when I heard Jim Caldwell would be returning to coach the Lions again in 2016. What bothers me most about his return is the detriment I see it serving to Ameer Abdullah’s growth as a player next year. I certainly won’t knock Theo Riddick, as what he did last season as a pass catcher out of the backfield was impressive, but let’s not forget Riddick was a wide receiver in college. With the amount of time he spent on the field (played 43.6% of the team’s offensive snaps), he should have had as many receptions as he did, especially when you take into account the guy was on the field that much and only managed 2.6 carries per game—i.e. he basically was a receiver. The Lions’ O-Line was downright porous, and what do quarterbacks generally do when they sense unavoidable pressure and an imminent sack? That’s right, they dump the ball off to one of their “outlets.” I’m not saying Riddick didn’t make plenty happen on his own, but I do think he was a beneficiary of poor offensive line play.
Finally, it’s important to take Caldwell’s management of the running back position into account. Caldwell rotated backs more than any coach I can ever remember seeing. By the end of the season, he would literally change from Riddick to Abdullah to Bell to Riddick to Abdullah to Bell and so forth and so on, every single down. How on earth can a running back get into any kind of rhythm when they are coming off the field after every snap? Does he realize that most, if not all, running backs get a feel for the game and the defensive scheme they’re facing with each and every offensive snap? To analogize this with baseball for a moment, can you imagine rotating batters during at-bats, having two, or even three hitters rotating pitch after pitch? Neither can I. That would be a recipe for disaster. And, so is what Caldwell did with his running backs in 2015. Every time Riddick was the lone back on the field, you knew it was likely a passing play (he carried the ball on less than 10% of his offensive snaps). Every time Abdullah was on the field, you could reasonably conclude two things: (1) there was a greater chance than not that he was going to get the ball (he touched the ball on 51.2% of his offensive snaps; and (2) he wouldn’t be running it up the middle (he ran the ball up the middle on only 5.3% of his offensive snaps). They may not be mathematicians, but I’m sure NFL coaches were able to crack that code without too much difficulty. Throw in a terrible offensive line, and it’s no wonder the Lions finished dead last in the league in rushing last season. Note to Jim Caldwell: when your offense is aptly labeled “predictable,” that’s a bad thing.
I’m all about coaching and offensive continuity, but not when it amounts to mediocrity. Anyone with eyes could tell the Lions had something special in Ameer Abdullah week one against the Chargers when he juked Eric Weddle right out of his shoes for his first career touchdown. I know all about his fumbling issues, and his small hands (8 5/8” inches), but you have to be outside of your mind if you think I’m going to let his hand measurement dissuade me from buying in on a guy who passes my eye test a million times over. Hand measurements weren’t very reliably recorded until about 2008, but even with limited data, here is a short list of NFL running backs who also have small hands: Cameron Artis-Payne, Tevin Coleman, LeSean McCoy, Jerick McKinnon, Charles Sims (who had the smallest I could find at 8 1/8”), and oh yeah, that’s right, Theo Riddick. Instead of allowing groupthink to convince you that Abdullah’s fumble-itis is incurable, perhaps you should perform a more thorough examination. He runs powerfully for his size, has incredible vision, great acceleration, one-of-a-kind lateral quickness, and to top it all off, he’s a humble grinder with the kind of work ethic and character we wish all NFL players would have. He simply jumps off the tape, and that character and work ethic are exactly why I believe he will overcome his fumbling woes. For perspective: (1) LaDainian Tomlinson fumbled the rock eight times as a rookie; (2) In his first meaningfully productive season (2000), Tiki Barber had nine fumbles; and (3) Over his first 3 seasons in the NFL, Adrian Peterson let the ball squirt out 20 TIMES. So, give the guy a break. Caldwell should have, and should have given Abdullah a real go when the season was in the tank to see what he had, but that’s all water under the bridge now. My advice on Abdullah is simple—if you own him, great, you should reap the benefits of your conviction over the next handful of years. And, if you don’t own him, and think the guy in your league who does might be low on him, go out and get him. If Caldwell doesn’t utilize him properly in 2016, it won’t be Abdullah losing his job, it will be Caldwell, and then Abdullah will go on to make him eat crow in the years thereafter.
Let’s give the guy props where props are due. Riddick was a fantasy darling in 2015 catching 80 passes, accumulating 830 total yards from scrimmage, and finding pay dirt three times. He has great hands as a receiver, makes decisive cuts, and is able to make the first defender miss. His 179 points were enough to place Riddick 19th among running backs in PPR scoring, making him an almost out-of-nowhere, very viable RB2/Flex. And, in my opinion, that is about as good as it is going to get for the scatback out of Notre Dame. More than anything else, Riddick’s fantasy impact in 2016 will mostly be an impediment to Abdullah’s. The Lions didn’t spend a second round draft pick on Abdullah just because they thought he could be the next coming of Reggie Bush. They spent their second round draft pick on him as they knew what a value it was to get a back with the kind of skills he possessed with the 54th overall pick—skills that would be best showcased in an every-down-back role. That does not mean that Theo Riddick is without value. Take a look at Dion Lewis, Bilal Powell, and Chris Thompson. Backs that possess the receiving skills he does are a nightmare for NFL defenses to contend with. They’re too quick for linebackers to cover man-to-man, and when the defense is in zone coverage, they find space within the zone, and make the defense pay by so often making that first tackler miss.
Also, I think the Lions offense can very easily support both Abdullah and Riddick, if utilized properly. Rather than rotating backs every down, they can use more sets where both players are on the field. Doing so means they’ll have to worry about both, along with trying to contend with Golden Tate and the improving Eric Ebron. Now you’re probably wondering why I said that Riddick’s 2015 season is about as good as it will get for him. Well, just because I think the offense can support both he and Abdullah, and that a back with his skills can be valuable does not mean I think Riddick is going to be providing fantasy owners with RB2/Flex statistics year-after-year. And, to be clear, I do not think that will be the case. The Lions will work on their O-line this off-season, and that should provide Matthew Stafford a bit more time to work with in the pocket (i.e. less dump offs). I think Caldwell comes to his senses with an entire off-season, training camp, and preseason to prepare, and that Abdullah leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that he is a far superior back to Riddick. Abdullah will command more snaps, more touches, and Theo Riddick will not finish the season ten catches away from leading the Lions in receptions.
If you own Theo Riddick, my advice to you is sell “high.” He’s young (will only be 25 for the 2016 season), and he’s coming off his best statistical season since high school. Though he may make for a great low-cost play in daily fantasy tournament play here and there, I think your team is in pretty bad shape if you’re counting on Riddick as your RB2, or your Flex. Sell him while you can, while his value is high.
What is there to say about Joique Bell? The guy says he feels healthier than he has in four years, but wouldn’t you if you were owed $3.5 million next season, and the organization owing it could avoid paying two thirds of that by cutting you? Though they’ve made more aloof roster decisions than I care to count, I think even the Lions are smart enough to know this bad of an investment when they see it. He’ll be 30 in August, and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2016. It simply doesn’t make sense for the Lions to bring him back, especially when you consider the emergence of Zach Zenner. But, that doesn’t mean dynasty players should let Bell go for nothing. He’s proven he’s a strong between-the-tackles runner, and there are a number of places I could see him landing where you might be able to squeeze one last meaningful season out of him off goal line carries alone. For example, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots will be bringing Steven Jackson back. Dion Lewis is great, but Bill Belichick loves a guy who can pound the rock into the end zone (see: BenJarvus Green-Ellis), and Bell really fits the mold of a guy who’d fit their scheme. I’m not saying you should expect this, but it wouldn’t blow my mind if Bell lands somewhere like a New England, gets goal line carries, and scores enough touchdowns to warrant keeping him in 2016. I don’t really see you being able to acquire much in return for Bell at this point, but if you have a league that remains active through the off-season, I recommend waiting to see where he lands before you go and cut him.
Of course, the guy you were all waiting for. I don’t think I can recall a player ever garnering as much hype as Zenner did during the 2015 preseason. The guy ran tough, ran smart, and held on to the ball. During the preseason, he led the league with 183 yards rushing, averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and scored two touchdowns to boot. He didn’t get much work during the regular season before going down with a nasty injury involving multiple cracked ribs and a partially collapsed lung. That says more about the hit he received than anything else, so I wouldn’t worry that he’s “injury prone” or anything. So what’s his value heading into 2016? I think the Lions will use him as a change-of-pace back who they’ll use on goal line carries the way they did with Joique Bell. I think he’s a good buy right now, and someone Abdullah owners should look to acquire as a handcuff.
Not much to say here. Arguably the best receiver since Randy Moss, and certainly a generational talent, Calvin Johnson has decided to hang up the cleats once and for all. It’s a sad time for Lions fans and dynasty owners alike, but the show must go on. Given the news surrounding the context of his retirement, and how worn he’s looked the past two seasons, this does not appear to be one of those situations where anyone should expect the guy to be changing his mind, or coming back from retirement. If you regrettably find yourself in the precarious position of owning him, it’s time to move on and release him. As far as the team’s offense goes, I assume Tate will take over as the lead receiver. With that said, now that the Lions know Johnson will not be returning to them, perhaps they either make a run at a free agent like Alshon Jeffery, or select a receiver on the first day of the NFL draft. If the Lions do add a receiver with the aim of making him a meaningful part of the offense in 2016, barring a few exceptions, I think that will be a player on my radar to go out and buy given my thoughts on Stafford above.
I’ll say it, Golden Tate is underrated, and at 28 going into the next season, this might be the best time to buy him. And guess what? It doesn’t matter that he’ll be without Calvin Johnson on the other side of the field. When I set out to write this piece, I started with the assumption that Calvin’s presence had to benefit Tate, but I was wrong. After doing the math, here is what I learned: Since coming to the Lions, in games where Johnson was relegated to “decoy” duties (using games where Johnson was targeted five times or fewer), Tate, over those five games, averaged 6.8 receptions, 8.6 targets, 75.8 receiving yards, and one touchdown per game. Then, I looked at the three games Johnson missed in 2014, and found Tate averaged eight receptions, ten targets, 116.33 yards, and .66 TDs per game. I put those calculations together, and found that in games Johnson was either out, or targeted fewer than five times, Tate averaged 7.4 catches, 9.3 targets, 96.06 yards, and .83 touchdowns per game. Extrapolating that out over a 16-game NFL season, the data shows that if Tate performed for an entire season the way he has when Johnson has either been out, or targeted fewer than five times, he’d accumulate: 118.4 receptions, 148.8 targets, 1,536.96 yards, and 13.28 touchdowns. Not too bad, eh? So, my take on Tate is that he is undervalued, and he will provide fantasy owners with his most productive seasons over the next few years. He’s an excellent possession receiver, and a chain-mover who’s deceivingly difficult to take down. I’m buying him where I can.
Moore was the WR3 for the Lions in 2015. He had 29 catches for 337 yards and four scores in a season where the Lions ranked 20th in overall offense. While that’s not all that impressive, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions decided to re-sign him now that Johnson’s gone. Still, leave him on the waiver-wire. He has a poor track record as far as injury goes, and at 33 next season, I’m not expecting him to provide a fantasy relevant season, whether he’s a part of the team or not. With that said, Stafford is more than capable of producing more than one fantasy relevant receiver. Who knows just what the Lions will do this off-season, but with the Megatron retirement news, it seems inevitable they will be looking to add at least one dynamic receiver to their roster. I imagine they’ll look to add one through free agency, and select one in the draft with depth and the future in mind. It’s anyone’s guess exactly who will be lining up as the second and third receivers for the Lions come September, but whoever they have lined up alongside Tate should have an immediate impact in 2016, and will make a good buy right away.
Eric Ebron will be just 23 years old when the 2016 season begins, and he is absolutely trending in the right direction. After a disappointing rookie season, he bounced back in 2015 with 47 receptions, 537 yards, and five touchdowns. Keep in mind Ebron was only 21 as a rookie and a very raw player. You’ll often read stories about Ebron’s “issues with drops,” but as a rookie, he only had four, and in 2015 with much greater usage, he had only five. The experts always say that the magical year for receivers and tight ends is usually their third season, so I’m expecting big things from Ebron in 2016, and beyond. If you own him, good for you. If you don’t, he’ll probably be a tough guy to buy, but I’d rather have Ebron than Julius Thomas any day, and you may have noticed which one is ranked higher. So, if the Ebron owner in your league undervalues him, make him pay for it. With Johnson’s departure, the door is wide open.
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