A Look Inside: 2021 Detroit Lions

Detroit was in the bottom half of NFL rankings for most offensive metrics last season. They were a top-12 passing team, but that was based on volume, not necessarily effectiveness. Lots of negative game scripts forced them into shootouts, which were good for fantasy purposes, but led to few wins. As a result, head coach Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell were both relieved of their duties when the season was over.

For 2021, they have a new staff led by the “knee-cap bitin'” Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Campbell has already provided us with some entertaining press conference material and several memorable quotes. The city of Detroit seems to have embraced his genuine and lively personality, but will it translate into wins?

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode with special guest Jeff Haseley on Youtube below!

Quarterbacks

One of the bigger moves of the off-season occurred when Detroit swapped Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff. They also received a pair of future first-round picks from the Rams for good measure. This was a sign that Detroit was committed to a rebuild of the franchise, though you won’t hear anyone from their camp admit it.

Goff has been sort of a punching bag for the fantasy community. He catches a lot of flack over the downfall of the Rams’ offense ever since their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2019. Even though he’s coming off of the worst fantasy season since his rookie year, a QB20 finish, it wasn’t all bad. He had his career-high on-target pass percentage (78.5%) which was good for 11th-best among passers with over 100 attempts. He also lowered his bad-throw percentage down to 16%. That was better than quarterbacks like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Matthew Stafford.

FantasyData has Goff’s current 2021 ADP as QB27. For a guy with top-15 finishes in three out of the last four years, he is set to be a great value as a solid QB2 in Superflex leagues. Detroit’s defense won’t be able to stop many opponents from putting up points this season, so expect another year filled with negative game scripts and plenty of garbage time.

Running Backs

The Lions have a long history of disappointing running backs since the days of Barry Sanders ended. D’Andre Swift, a former Georgia Bulldog who was their 2020 second-round pick, is looking to change that. He was off to a quick start as a rookie, earning ten targets over the first two weeks. Through ten weeks, he was the RB13 despite seeing more than a fifty-percent snap share in only two games. A concussion caused him to miss Weeks 11-13, but Swift ended up finishing the season on a strong note. He had double-digit performances in three out of the final four games.

Swift was quite efficient in his rookie season, which is often overlooked. He was a top-15 running back in yards per touch and breakaway run rate (credit: Player Profiler). He also had the sixth-most yards per route run and 11th-most yards per reception. Among the rookie running backs, he led in receiving yards, had the second-most receptions, and was third in fantasy points-per-game (behind only James Robinson and Jonathan Taylor).

The Lions needed to bolster their depth behind Swift, so they signed free agent Jamaal Williams to a two-year deal. Many believe that Williams will cut into a good amount of Swift’s target share, but I don’t see it. Williams’ best season as a receiver was 262 yards of production. That’s barely half the 521 receiving yards Swift put up in just 13 games. The strength of Williams’ game is his blocking abilities. Detroit will be able to use both backs on the field simultaneously. Williams can be a blocker while Swift is getting a healthy amount of looks.

Swift should be viewed as a mid-tier RB2 with tremendous upside. He needs the offense to perform better than expected and to continue to operate as the primary goal-line back. Williams is no more than an RB3 and above-average handcuff that could sneak into the Top 24 if Swift were to suffer an injury.

Wide Receivers

I don’t want to waste much time discussing the 2020 season for the Detroit wide receivers. The only wideouts that had more than 400 receiving yards, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, are no longer on the roster. So that brings us to the 2021 group. They aren’t much more exciting to talk about but at least there are some new faces.

If you believe in “following the money”, Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman are the expected outside starting receivers. The recent free-agent acquisitions each inked one-year deals for $4 million and $2.5 million, respectively. Even though Williams has some familiarity with Lynn’s offense from his Chargers days, expectations should be low for these two veterans. In 12 combined NFL seasons, they only have one top-40 finish between them. Each one will have an occasional good game, but the chances of either becoming a consistent fantasy starter are slim.

That leaves us with a pair of young players battling it out for the starting slot role: Quintez Cephus, 2019 fifth-round pick, and Amon-Ra St. Brown, the incoming rookie out of USC whom the Lions drafted in the 4th round. Keep in mind that Goff always relied heavily on his primary slot receiver in LA, Cooper Kupp. Don’t be surprised if this is where the fantasy relevance comes from in this offense.

St. Brown likely has the leg up over Cephus based on draft capital and the fact that he was brought in by the current regime. A Breakout Age of 18.9 and 33.1% College Dominator Rating form an impressive analytical profile for the 21-year-old. Cephus flashed a few times during his rookie season. After seeing ten targets in the season opener, his involvement was minimal for the remainder of the year. His Day 3 draft capital is unappealing, but his stock did fall due to injury concerns and legal issues. Those allegations were eventually proven to be false and were dropped. This will be an interesting camp battle to watch.

Tight Ends

Many would say that T.J. Hockenson officially broke out last season after a top-5 TE finish in both total fantasy points and points per game. He has firmly established himself in the second tier of tight ends, behind the “Big 3” of Kelce, Kittle, and Waller. To live up to his pre-draft hype, he will now need to perform well enough to boost himself into the top tier of tight ends, or at least close the gap.

Several positive signs point to an even better season for Hockenson in Year 3. First, he is a safe bet to lead the team in targets. He was second to only Marvin Jones in 2020 and, as mentioned previously, there were no high-profile additions made to the wide receiver room this off-season. Second, his head coach was a former tight end himself. There have already been multiple reports suggesting that the staff expects Hockenson to step into a major role and become a leader of the team. The last point to consider is the development that he has already shown from his rookie season. In his second year, he improved his catch rate, yards per route run, yards per target, and receiving yards per game.

It remains to be seen how his connection with Goff will develop. Based on volume alone, Hockenson is locked in as a mid-TE1. If he can take another step forward and improve on his efficiency as a receiver, he could inch his way into the Top 3.