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Free Agency Preview: Lions Need to Give Matthew Stafford More Weapons

Neil Dutton reviews the Detroit Lions 2018 season, outlines players the team could lose to free agency and offers his thoughts on potential reinforcements the team should look to sign.

2018 IN SUMMARY

After back to back 9-7 campaigns, the Detroit Lions brought the Jim Caldwell era to an end after the 2017 season. In his stead, they appointed New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It’s safe to say that the season was something of a let-down, as the Lions finished 6-10 and fourth in the NFC North. They had one run of back-to-back wins, beating the Packers 31-23 in Week 5 and then the Dolphins 32-21 in Week 7 after their bye week. The Lions would not score more than 22 points again until a 31-0 Week 17 blowout over the Packers. The Lions finished 25th in points scored, with 324, whilst surrendering the 16th fewest points with 360.

The Lions amassed 3,576 yards through the air in 2018, with all but 19 of those yards coming from Matthew Stafford. The total yards were “good” for 20th in the NFL, with Stafford’s 3,777 his lowest total in the last eight seasons. It is perhaps no coincidence that he threw an eight-year low in passes too, with 555. The Lions scored 22 touchdowns through the air, with Stafford throwing 21 of them. This too was a big dropoff for him, as only once in a full 16 game season has Stafford thrown less than 22. That was back in 2012. Nineteen teams managed more passing scores than the Lions. They and Stafford were also among the league’s worst in terms of net yards per attempt, with 5.8. This ranked 25th. Whatever way you look at it, Stafford won’t look back on the 2018 season with too much affection. Nor will his fantasy owners.

stafford 11-18

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay, a player that I may be a little fan of, led the Lions in receptions and receiving yards. His 70 catches brought him 1,063 yards, his first 1,000-yard campaign in the NFL. Running back Theo Riddick was the only other Lions player to snag 50 catches, finishing with 61 for 384 scoreless yards. Golladay’s fellow WR Marvin Jones was restricted to just nine games, which contributed to his 35-508 stat line. It should be noted that Jones averaged 3.9 receptions per game, the highest mark of his Lions career. But his 14.5 yards per reception was his lowest in the Motor City.

lions recs

The Lions traded Golden Tate to the Eagles after Week 8. In his seven outings with the Lions in 2018, he commanded 69 targets for a 27 percent share. He converted these into 44 receptions for 517 yards, with three scores.

LeGarrette Blount led the Lions in backfield carries, with 154. But these garnered a disappointing 418 yards at a putrid 2.7 yards per attempt. Rookie Kerryon Johnson fared much better, converted his 118 attempts into 641 yards with three touchdowns. He would no doubt have bettered these numbers had he not been lost to injury during the Lions Week 11 game against the Panthers. Johnson was by far the best thing to happen to the Lions backfield for many a long year. As I wrote in my piece looking back on his rookie season, Johnson’s 101 yards in Week 3 were the first 100-yard effort from a Lion in 70 games going back to 2013. Johnson then

followed it up with 158 yards against the Dolphins in Week 7. He had 87 yards on 15 carries in the third quarter of the Lions Week 11 game against the Panthers before leaving the game with the knee injury that would ultimately end his season.

lions rush

To emphasize my point, however, Johnson enjoyed a substantial stranglehold on the Lions rushing attempts before his injury. The image below shows how the spoils were shared up to Johnson’s last game of the season.

kerryon v blount

OFFENSIVE FREE AGENTS

PLAYER POSITION AGE CURRENT APY STATUS
Luke Willson TE 29  $2,500,000 UFA
LeGarrette Blount RB 33  $2,000,000 UFA
T.J. Jones WR 27  $1,907,000 UFA
Levine Toilolo TE 28  $1,500,000 UFA
Matt Cassel QB 37  $1,105,000 UFA
Nick Bellore FB 30  $1,005,000 UFA
Andrew Donnal RG 27  $705,000 UFA
Zach Zenner RB 28  $705,000 UFA

Salary information courtesy of OverTheCap.com

The Lions aren’t too badly off in terms of cap space, with an estimated $35.9m at their disposal. Despite this, there is very little reason why they should fear losing any of their FAs. Blount may very well be done, after a woeful first year with the Lions. After the Lions opted to release Eric Ebron last offseason, they looked to replace him with former Seahawks tight end Luke Willson. Despite hopes that he could convert his elite athleticism into consistent production, Willson caught just 13 passes all season. Zach Zenner is the proud owner of 4.7 yards per touch average in his career and wasn’t able to dislodge Blount last season. While the Lions will obviously hope Stafford never has to leave the field, they could do a lot better than Matt Cassel as a backup. Cassel has only started two games in his last three seasons and boasts a 3-5 TD:INT ratio in that span.

POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS

The Lions have made no bones about the fact that they consider upgrading their TE corps “a priority” this offseason. No doubt the success enjoyed by Ebron with the Colts has stung them, somewhat. The Lions targeted their TEs at the lowest rate of any team last season, while only the Dolphins gained fewer receptions from the position group. This is a pretty strong draft class for TEs, and the Lions will no doubt look to grab one. But they could certainly stand a veteran upgrade. Jared Cook is the top free agent in a fairly underwhelming class, but he would certainly be looking for top dollar. I’m not sure the Lions would look to give it to him.

A wildcard could be re-signing Willson, given his familiarity with new Lions OC Darrell Bevell. But he has shown that he is not a playmaker. If he can prove his fitness, Tyler Eifert may be a player worth a one-year rental. But the “if he can prove his fitness” is a massive if. One of the most athletic players in the class, other than Cook, is Demetrius Harris, late of the Chiefs. Harris has been behind Travis Kelce for much of his NFL career. He did average 13.7 yards per reception in 2018 and averaged an eye-opening 1.84 yards of separation according to PlayerProfiler.

Golladay and Jones are firmly entrenched as the Lions main outside WRs. But they could certainly do with adding a quality slot receiver. They are well aware of Randall Cobb, having played in the same division as him since he entered the NFL. He played 86 percent of his snaps from the slot last season. However, Cobb’s receptions and yards per game have gone down every year for the last four seasons, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers. The Lions may balk at paying him at his approximate market value of $7.9m a year, according to Spotrac.

Adam Humphries is another slot specialist, with 78.4 percent of his snaps coming inside in 2018. He was eighth among all WRs in YAC, with 428 of his 816 receiving yards (52.4 percent) coming after the catch. He was fairly consistent regardless of who was quarterbacking the Bucs last season, although he enjoyed a far more fruitful alliance with Ryan Fitzpatrick than Jameis Winston.

 

humphries aya

Humphries did have six drops last season, a stat that may slightly put the Lions off him. Stafford had a league-high 45 passes dropped in 2018, and he will be hoping for a huge improvement from everyone. Spotrac has Humphries at around $10.4m a year for four years. Given that the Lions have the sixth lowest amount of cap space dedicated to their WRs in the whole NFL, it may be money well spent.

But there is another player that the Lions may well want to consider bringing in. He’s a player that Bevell knows well, having coached him for the Seahawks earlier in his career. He also has some familiarity with the Lions and Stafford … well, I say some … Stafford has his fourth-best adjusted yards per attempt since 2014 when targeting him. Yep, I’m talking about Golden Tate.

stafford aya

The Lions offense pretty much went down the toilet after Tate was traded away.

det wo tate

However, it remains something of a pipe dream. The Lions did have multiple chances to sign Tate to a long term deal before he was traded, and they didn’t take any of them. It’s fair to say that Tate’s numbers as an Eagle wouldn’t make anyone in the Lions front office rush out to correct any error they may have made, anyway. Spotrac places his approximate value at close to that of Humphries, who is also quite a bit younger. Plus, if Tate were to return, there is a good chance that he would do more than simply compete for targets, but instead vacuum them up from Messrs Golladay and Jones. And I don’t want to see that happen.

Dave Birkett, one of the best Lions beat writers around, “doesn’t completely rule out” a reunion. But he also thinks it unlikely. So do I. But I would really like to see them go after Humphries.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is little doubt in my mind that the Lions need a serious injection of talent on the offensive side of the ball. They will be paying Stafford the fifth-highest salary of any QB in the NFL next season, but in order to maximize their investment, they need to make sure that he has all the weapons he can handle. While a fully healthy Kerryon Johnson will give the offense a boost, a reliable cadre of pass catchers will be a huge boost for Stafford. If the team can make the necessary upgrades, then Stafford could be the late-round QB to own in fantasy next season.1 But crucially, it should help them compete in an NFC North that suddenly doesn’t look as daunting as in previous years.

  1. Incredibly, Stafford was 28th in fantasy points per game among QBs last season.  (back)

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