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32 Teams In 32 Days: Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions hired Darrell Bevell to be their offensive coordinator for the 2019 NFL Season.  Not long after that, Bevell was quoted stating, “We’ll always be about running the football.”  The charts below put Bevell’s quote into context.  

Chart 1 – Darrell Bevell League Rank by Play Type

Chart 2 – Rushing Attempts per Game

Chart 3 – Passing Attempts per Game

As illustrated above, Bevell ranked inside the NFL’s top 3 in rushing attempts over his last 4 seasons in the league. In addition, his increased rush attempts and decreased pass attempts are in direct conflict with league trends at large. Based on chart 3 above, it appears that if Darrell Bevell is still coaching in the 2098 NFL Season, he will be exclusively running the football. All of this data would seem to support the near-consensus narrative that the 2019 Lions will feature a run-heavy offense, leading to diminished value for Matthew Stafford and the team’s passing attack for the 2019 fantasy season.

However, this level of analysis is surface-level and lazy.  Digging deeper into the numbers, we find a different story.

Table 1 – Darrell Bevell Offensive Breakdown by Year

Chart 4 – Darrell Bevell League Rank Modified

Chart 5 – Rushing Attempts per Game Modified

Charts 4 and 5 above show that it made sense for Darrell Bevell to be an extremely run-heavy team from 2012-2015.  The Seahawks had a terrible offensive line, a potential HOF running back, and an athletically gifted quarterback (who was also forced to scramble).  When we look at only running back rushing attempts per game, Bevell is actually below league average in terms of running plays per game during his tenure in Seattle.

The other spike in rushing attempts per game under Bevell occurred with the Vikings, when he had a surefire HOF running back in Adrian Peterson.

Bevell has also shown the ability to call passing plays, ranking in the top 10 twice in his 10 years as an OC (2006 and 2009). With Brett Favre under center, Bevell called the 10th most passing plays in the league and made it all the way to overtime in the NFC Championship Game

After spending time digging into the data and trying to avoid preconceptions I had coming in to this, I have concluded that Darrell Bevell is a quality OC who makes the most of what he has to work with.  

Lions Starters:

  • WR1 – Kenny Golladay
  • WR2 – Marvin Jones
  • WR3 – Danny Amendola
  • RB – Kerryon Johnson
  • TE – TJ Hockenson

TIGHT END:

The Lions spent the 8th overall pick on TJ Hockenson, who was almost unanimously crowned as the best TE in this draft class. History shows that it takes TEs some time to develop in the league, but Hockenson is the first prospect I have seen with a separate blocking highlight reel on YouTube aside from his pass-catching reel. The Lions are going to need Hockenson to contribute early, both blocking and catching passes, in order to have success offensively this year and in future seasons.

RUNNING BACK: 

Table 2 – Darrell Bevell RB1 by Year

Kerryon Johnson was taken in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft and had immediate success breaking the Lion’s 70 game 100-yard rusher drought. There is a lot of excitement around Kerryon Johnson, but I am worried about whether he will be able to handle the workload of a typical Darrell Bevell RB1 (~19 Att/Game vs 11.8 Att/Game for Johnson in 2018). A knee injury ended Johnson’s campaign early last year after 118 totes. There is potential that the Lions may be concerned about Kerryon’s durability as well, as they have re-signed Zach Zenner, attempted to (and failed to) sign Malcolm Brown, signed CJ Anderson, and drafted former Maryland RB Ty Johnson in the 6th round. It’s reasonable to read these moves as a sign that the Lions do not think Kerryon will be able to handle the 280+ rushing attempts that Bevell tends to give his RB1. Is there potential here for RBBC?

Looking past Kerryon Johnson on the Lions depth chart, two words come to mind: Old & Slow. CJ Anderson, Zach Zenner, and Theo Riddick are the next three in line for touches. CJ Anderson is the most intriguing option here, as he has shown the ability to be productive when given the opportunity (see DEN, LAR). The Lions also drafted Ty Johnson, someone who is the antithesis of OLD & SLOW (i.e. YOUNG & FAST); Ty Johnson will be 22 at the start of the season and ran a 4.4 at his pro-day.

WIDE RECEIVER:

Here is the Detroit Lions Wide Receiver depth chart as of this writing (courtesy of Ourlads). I modified it to also show NFL Draft Capital:

Table 3 – Detroit Lions Depth Chart with Draft Capital

That is an absolutely brutal depth chart (in terms of actually having quality depth). What surprises me here is that Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, coming from New England, both seem to have missed the part where the Patriots, seemingly every season, take fliers on former high draft picks who have flopped. There is almost no draft capital in this WR group at all. Keep in mind, many of these players will no longer be on the team at the start of the season.

If we are operating on the premise that Darrell Bevell will make the most out of what he has, we have to believe that Golladay and Jones will be fed a vast majority of the WR targets. Golladay was able to crack the top 24 in PPR scoring last year, and it is reasonable to assume that he will do so again in 2019. But the only way he truly ascends is if he improves his efficiency:

Table 4 – PPR Points per Target

QUARTERBACK:

Chart 6 – Passing Plays per Game

Matthew Stafford has definitely struggled since the decline and departure of Calvin Johnson, but Stafford is the most talented player on the Lions roster, one of only 7 QBs in NFL history to throw for over 5000 yards in a single season.  Working off of the premise that Darrell Bevell makes the most out of what he has, it is possible, and perhaps even likely, to see the Lions OC lean more towards the 2009 Brett Favre play-calling split, rather than the current expected narrative of “top-3 in rushing attempts.”  Stafford has two highly talented WRs and a RB group that is capable of catching passes. There is tremendous potential for Stafford to be a steal in the later rounds of a 2QB Draft.

STASHES:

Looking beyond the marquis fantasy names like Kerryon, Golladay, Jones, Stafford, and Hockenson (and maybe Anderson) we find a sea of old, slow players on the Lions.  Therefore, it is easy to identify the outliers of this group and stash them on your team. There are two players on this roster that jump off of the page in this regard: 

TY JOHNSON – The Lions spent a 6th round pick on the running back out of Maryland.  He has blazing speed, running a 4.4 at his pro day. He could just as easily flame-out as succeed, but his upside is tremendous, as he is much faster than any other RB on the roster (Kerryon Johnson included), and has the ability to even carve out a change-of-pace role, possibly receiving regular touches on a weekly basis.

DEONTEZ ALEXANDER – Looking back at table 3 and the sea of UDFA WRs on this team, Deontez Alexander is a huge outlier. He is extremely athletic and only 22 years old.  He was signed as a UDFA in 2018, before being waived with an undisclosed injury.  The Lions were lucky to get him back on the roster, as he provides tremendous, starter-level upside on an otherwise lackluster WR depth chart. With the addition of Kearse to their offense, it is unlikely that Alexander is going to make the roster, but it is definitely a name to remember.  If he is able to become more than a camp body, his athletic profile may be too good to pass up.

It is hard to spend your draft capital on this enigma of a team, but Ty Johnson and Deontez Alexander are definitely stash-worthy players. Both of them have extraordinary upside, and they could emerge as secret ingredients in some of the schemes Bevell cooks up this fall.

In summary, the Lions have come out and stated that they will run the football, but they have shown signs of distrust in Kerryon Johnson’s durability. Bevell has made the most out of what he has had in his previous stops, and he now finds himself operating with a former 5,000 yard passer.  It is easy to write off this team as RBBC, but there is potential that the Lions surprise the consensus and sling it around far more than expected in 2019.

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