The Detroit Lions 2013 season may have been a disappointment to fans of the franchise, but it was anything but to fantasy owners. That squad featured the seventh-best quarterback, third-best wide receiver, and two top-20 running backs in standard scoring leagues. So what happens now that the previous offensive coaching staff has been replaced by head coach Jim Caldwell and first-time offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi? Using GameRewind, I was able to discern what this new offense might look like and the impact it will have on the fantasy futures of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, among others. To the Fantasy Film Study we go!
Both Caldwell and Lombardi work in a variation of the Air Coryell offense, which tries to force the defense to defend the entire field through a combination of mid- to deep-range passing routes and a power running game. Both still use motion to help their receivers avoid jams so they can execute their deeper routes. However, neither coaches' previous scheme featured the true power back that was a staple of the original Air Coryell scheme to grind out yards in the trenches. Caldwell has expressed a desire to feature more one-back sets multiple personnel packages, while Lombardi has also hinted at bringing many of the tenants of the New Orleans Saints offense into his new playbook.
The Curious Case of Matthew Stafford
The so-called "fixing" of Matthew Stafford is why the Lions brass brought in Caldwell and Lombardi, who have spent much of the last decade working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, respectively. Stafford has performed admirably when it comes to fantasy finishing fifth, 11th and seventh in fantasy scoring over the last three years, but he's had a troubling trend in a number of key statistics as you can see in the table to the right. Not shown in that table is how his completion percentage and QBR have also each declined for three straight years.
Manning has gone out of his way to praise the impact Caldwell had on his career. But a look at the total offensive numbers suggests Caldwell may have benefitted more from Manning than vis versa. The table to the right (apologies for all of the tables) details how Caldwell's offenses have faired with and without Manning. Yes, one year was with Curtis Painter under center, but he also had Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco for all of last year and the results were wildly unspectacular. I didn't include 2012, as Caldwell was only in the interim coordinator during the last few weeks of the season and postseason. For a more thorough statistical analysis of Caldwell's complete run as Baltimore's offensive coordinator, check out this article.
Joe Lombardi could turn out to be the smarter hire here. He's been working in a creative, explosive offense for the last five years and has that whole bloodlines thing going for him (he's the grandson of Vince Lombardi.) Moreover, while Lombardi was the Saints' quarterback coach Drew Brees posted his three highest completion percentage seasons, as well as three straight 5,000-plus passing yard seasons. To play devil's advocate, Brees was still playing at a ridiculously high level when Lombardi was promoted, so we can't really know how much of the statistical change came from Lombardi's guidance.
Fantasy impact: Much remains to be determined about the look and feel of this offense, but for now the jury is out on how these two will impact Matthew Stafford's fantasy value. Both coaches know how to coach quarterbacks, though, so if they can help Stafford become a more efficient passer and a better decision maker, marginal fantasy gains should be on the horizon, perhaps making Stafford a safer No. 1 quarterback option. Sadly, however, we won't be able to see the results until the season is underway.
A running back committee to embrace
Bush and Bell were the most productive running back tandem in the NFL last season, combining for 2,709 scrimmage yards (LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown were second with 2,544 scrimmage yards). While Caldwell has expressed a desire to run more one-back formations, I can't imagine he and Lombardi will shy away from putting both of these playmakers on the field at the same time, much like the Saints do with their backs.
Here, the Saints are running a package play, where Brees has the option of handing the ball off to Pierre Thomas, or swinging a pass out to Darren Sproles in the flat. Brees opts for the swing pass, which nets five yards and falls just short of a touchdown. These types of plays were prevalent in New Orleans' game-plans, and I'd expect to see a fair amount of them in Detroit in addition to single-back sets.
Fantasy impact: Aside from being the grandson of football's most iconic coach, Lombardi is known for thoroughly understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his players so he can get them in advantageous positions. Bush and Bell create a unique tandem as both can grind between the tackles and catch the ball in space. Overall, we may collectively be too low on these rushers, as both could have low-RB2 value or serve as excellent flex-options week-to-week in a Lombardi-Caldwell offense.
No longer a one-man wideout show
At this point, there's little that could impact the fantasy output of Calvin Johnson. He's finished third, first and first over the last three years in fantasy scoring among wide receivers. Now, the Lions might have finally found a No. 2 wide receiver to complement Johnson's abilities in Golden Tate, whom they signed to a five-year contract.
It's tough to discern what exactly the passing attack will look like at this time. One aspect of New Orleans' scheme Caldwell and Lombardi may employ is moving Megatron more frequently into the slot. The Saints have been doing this for years with Marques Colston to great effect as Andy Benoit explains wonderfully in his piece for MMQB, and the Arizona Cardinals have followed suit with Larry Fitzgerald. Megatron is a mismatch wherever he lines up, but in the slot he can more frequently get paired with players less adept at coverage. The safeties and corners will have to respect Tate on the edges, making it more difficult to provide help or bracket Megatron exclusively.
In the screen shot below, Colston is in the slot running a skinny post up the seam. He easily gets behind Luke Kuechly, and Quintin Mikell is late getting back to the middle after staying over the top of Jimmy Graham. The result is a 15-yard touchdown strike for Brees.
The big question mark in this group is the tight end position. Will Brandon Pettigrew finally live up to his potential by delivering on his new four-year contract extension? Or will he continue to disappoint the denizens of Detroit and be surpassed by dancing machine Joseph Fauria? Lombardi just spent the last four years working with one of the best tight ends in football, so perhaps he'll have a thing or two to teach Pettigrew and Fauria to help make his new offense go.
Fantasy impact: Johnson will still be the first wide receiver drafted. Nothing has changed there, although perhaps Lombardi can help scheme to get him in the end zone a few more times. Tate is a No. 3 wide receiver with No. 2 upside. Pettigrew is a No. 2 tight end at best, unless Caldwell and Lombardi can work some magic to turn the talented Oklahoma State product into Jimmy Graham 2.0. If not, Joseph Fauria is waiting in the wings and could once again be a red zone threat (and fantasy vulture.)
It's really tough to tell at this point what exactly is in store for this offense. Caldwell has a limited rap sheet as a play-caller/offensive coordinator, and the results are a mixed bag depending on his he has a Hall of Fame quarterback under center. Meanwhile, Lombardi has the lineage and apparent football acumen to be the next hot offensive coordinator, but has yet to operate in such a capacity.
What we do know is that the Lions are loaded with skill position players who could make hay in fantasy football. Calvin Johnson is the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy football, Golden Tate has No. 2 wide receiver potential, and the combo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell has the makings of two top-20 finishes in fantasy scoring for running backs. The book remains open on the Detroit offense, and will merit further attention -- and film study -- once the preseason arrives and we get to see what exactly Caldwell, Lombardi and the gang start putting on tape.
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