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Fantasy football 2014 draft prep: Detroit Lions team preview

Matthews Stafford (left) and Calvin Johnson form one of the most potent fantasy tandems in the NFL. Photo:

Matthews Stafford (left) and Calvin Johnson form one of the most potent fantasy tandems in the NFL.

Few teams in the NFL employ two running backs capable of being regular fantasy starters. Both guys need to be individually talented and have significant roles in a potent offense. Even a split in which one guy shoulders the load between the 20s while the other gets goal-line carries typically doesn’t create two RB2s, because the latter’s production is unreliable.

At the beginning of the 2014 season, there are four teams that are strong candidates to give the fantasy community two regular starters at running back. The Chargers did so last year with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. A bounce-back season for Stevan Ridley could make him and Shane Vereen worthy of starting every week. The Bills, too, with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have a chance to boast two running backs in the top 25 of the end-of-season fantasy rankings. However, just one team is nearly expected to produce two RB2s this season. Are Reggie Bush and Joique Bell of the Lions up to that task?

Let’s start by rewinding to last year. The Lions’ backfield duo was the most productive in the league, both in real life and fantasy. Bush ranked 10th among running backs with 193.2 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. Bell, meanwhile, was 17th, checking in with 167.7 points. Bush ran for 1,006 yards, caught 54 passes for 506 yards, and scored seven touchdowns. Bell had 650 yards on the ground, 53 receptions for 547 receiving yards, and hit paydirt eight times. What’s more, their solid production in a single game is not mutually exclusive. They each ranked as starters in 12-team leagues in three of the 14 games both played. While one usually took the leading role, there is enough potency in this offense to make both of them weekly starters.

The red-zone breakdown between the two was essentially even last year. Bush had 30 carries inside the 20-yard-line, 10 inside the 10, and six inside the five. For Bell, those numbers were 24, 11 and 10. While Bush was the preferred option from distance, the Lions turned to Bell once they were sniffing the goal line. Expect that to be the case again this season. Bush also edged Bell in red-zone targets, getting seven passes thrown his way to Bell’s four. With Calvin Johnson and new Lions pass catchers Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, neither Bush nor Bell is likely to be one of Matthew Stafford’s favorite targets in the red zone.

According to the industry consensus rankings on FantasyPros, it will take a pick just inside the top 40 to land Bush, while Bell is coming off the board about 15-20 picks later. In a 12-team league, that puts Bush in the early fourth round and Bell in the middle of the fifth. Given the strength of the Detroit offense, I am sold on both players at their respective ADPs. There’s also the hidden potential payoff in drafting Bush and Bell should the other miss time due to injury. If either one of these guys had the backfield all to themselves, he could become a top-10 running back.

Most overvalued player

Matthew Stafford, QB – Stafford is my No. 4 quarterback, a ranking I’ve been trumpeting since April and one on which I will stand all the way through draft season, barring any unforeseen developments. With the weapons at his disposal, I think he’s definitely worthy of being the first quarterback taken after the Great Triumvirate of Aaron Rodgers, Petyon Manning and Drew Brees is off the board. However, Stafford will likely cost you a pick in the 40-50 range, and given the quarterbacks you can get some 30 picks later, I’m not sure he’s worth it. The opportunity cost of taking Stafford is missing out on about your Nos. 18-22 running backs and Nos. 16-20 wide receivers. Guys like Tony Romo and Tom Brady being selected in the same neighborhood as about the 32nd running back and receiver. Does Stafford over Brady warrant dropping down 20 backs or receivers? I don’t think so.

Most undervalued player

Golden Tate, WR – The Lions have been trying for years to team Megatron with someone – anyone – who could take a little of the pressure off him out wide. They may have finally found their guy in Tate. In a restrained passing offense in Seattle the last two seasons, Tate combined for 109 catches for 1,576 yards and 12 touchdowns. Matthew Stafford led the league in pass attempts in 2011 and 2012, and is the only quarterback with at least 600 attempts in each of the last three seasons. Conversely, the Seahawks threw the ball 420 times last year and 405 times in 2012. Tate has never been in an offense that throws as frequently as Detroit’s. He should have the best year of his career.

Depth chart

QB: Matthew Stafford, Kellen Moore, Dan Orlovsky
RB: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure
WR: Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Ryan Broyles, Kris Durham, Kevin Ogletree
TE: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria

Defensive analysis

  Total vs. Pass vs. Run Points allowed
NFL rank 16 23 6 15
  vs. QB vs. WR vs. RB vs. TE
Fantasy rank 15 30 6 1

The Lions were always supposed to break through on defense given all the talent on the line, but they were also one of the most undisciplined units in the league under former coach Jim Schwartz. He was dismissed after the season, and in Detroit now is former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, along with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

Outside of the new coaching staff, this year’s Detroit defense will look a lot like last year’s. All of last year’s starters remain on the team, though Rashean Mathis may be a nickel back this year. The strength of the unit is up front, where Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah roam. According to Pro Football Focus, that group helped the Lions have the seventh-best pass rush last year. While they may have been effective at making the quarterback uncomfortable, they didn’t do enough of what matters to fantasy owners: sack the quarterback. They had just 33 sacks as a team, the fifth-lowest total in the league. Still, the line makes this a dangerous defense, and Ansah and Suh should be be drafted in IDP leagues.

The linebacker group is solid, led by Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. Tulloch had 135 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year, while Levy racked up 119 tackles of his own. The team also added Kyle Van Noy out of BYU in the second round, and he should see time as a backup, though he could also force his way into the starting lineup.

The Lions ranked 10th in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus, but a lot of that had to do with the effectiveness of their pass rush. They pried James Ihedigbo away from Baltimore to be their new strong safety, and he should stabilize a group that allowed the third-most fantasy points to wide receivers last season. Still, there isn’t a player in the secondary that warrants IDP consideration.

As a whole, there’s enough potential here that could make the Lions defense worth drafting, but don’t expect too much. Four games against the Packers and Bears also drives its value down a bit.

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