Fantasy Beat – Lions Preseason
Mike Clay has taken to the airwaves to host a Pro Football Focus fantasy football show on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio (10 a.m. ET weekdays – Sirius 210 & XM 87). In addition to his strategy and insight, Clay has had the opportunity to bring in beat writers around the nation to provide an insider fantasy spin on the teams they cover.
This past Friday he had a chance to speak with Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com. You can find Tim on Twitter @ttwentyman. Twentyman is excited about the Lions’ offense as a whole heading into year two of OC Joe Lombardi’s scheme, and he has a few names he wants you to keep an eye on going forward.
An Even Backfield Split Awaits
The Lions’ backfield is unsettled at the moment. With promising rookie Ameer Abdullah on board, Clay kicked off his discussion by touching on the Lions’ backfield situation. He asked Twentyman if Abdullah is going to take a big chunk out of Joique Bell’s workload or if it’s going to take some time.
“Ameer’s going to carve out his role in training camp,” Twentyman said. “He’s looked terrific, he’s a much better receiver than they expected. I would expect him to have a similar year to what Reggie Bush had in 2014 and 2013. In 2013, Joique and Bush became the first running back duo to each rush for 500 yards and catch 500 yards receiving. In an ideal world, each would maybe get 10-15 carries per game, depending on the matchup. In a one-two punch, this will keep Bell healthy and ease Abdullah along.”
In 2013, Bush missed just two games and finished with 625 offensive snaps while Bell finished with 562. In 2014, before Bush got injured, he finished with 136 snaps while Bell finished with 139. When both Bush and Bell were healthy, Theo Riddick didn’t get into the mix very often. Abdullah is a much better rusher between the tackles than given credit for. Earlier in June, I made the case for why Abdullah’s overall situation is the best of any rookie running back.
Stafford Is More Comfortable In Year Two
The Lions’ offense did not live up to expectations in 2014. Clay wanted to find out if Twentyman expects the offense to get better in 2015. What has changed that can improve this offense?
“Matthew Stafford has talked about his comfort level going into year two of Joe Lombardi’s offensive system,” Twentyman said. “That’s some transition when you’ve been in one system your whole career, and then you change systems and lose 11 starts along your offensive line. There’s a comfort level now, and Matthew has talked about being able to anticipate things at the line of scrimmage. I think that will naturally make things better.
“They really revamped that offensive line. They drafted Laken Tomlinson in the first round to play left guard, the [Dominic] Raiola era is over and Travis Swanson will take over at center. Riley Reiff could be the elder statesman along the offensive line. They’re going to be young and much more athletic. If they can stay healthy in the second year in the system, naturally you’re going to see this offense taking that step. I would throw Eric Ebron in there too. They’re expecting big things from him to be that No. 3 receiver, and he’s more comfortable now.”
Twentyman mentioned Tomlinson and Swanson as two key reasons why their offensive line can take a step forward in 2015. Tomlinson finished as College Football Focus’ second-best guard overall in 2014. He’s massive too – tipping the scales at 323. Swanson has drawn praise after transitioning to his natural center position this offseason.
If you’re like me, your eyes immediately moved to Twentyman’s final point about Ebron emerging as the team’s third option in the passing game. Don’t worry though, Clay was right on top of it …
Ebron Is Shaping Up As A High Ceiling, Low Floor TE Option
Clay expanded on Twentyman’s point and asked him if Ebron is going to emerge in his second NFL season.
“I don’t consider him a natural pass catcher,” Twentyman said. “I think that can be helped with the jugs machine, and to his credit we saw that in the offseason – him taking extra reps in practice. He’d go a couple practices in a row without any drops and he made plays. He trimmed his body fat this offseason, he came in better shape, and he looks faster.
“He made some plays in OTAs and minicamp where he’d catch a ball in the middle and outrun safeties and linebackers right down the middle. That’s the Eric Ebron the Lions are hoping they get. The guy who can be a mismatch in the middle of the field. He’s going to see a lot of one-on-one matchups with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate outside of him.”
Ebron is an intriguing flier at the tight end position. The former top-10 NFL draft pick struggled with drops during his rookie season – he had four despite playing just 452 offensive snaps. However, his speed makes him a mismatch for linebackers and safeties, as Twentyman alluded to.
If the Lions offense can establish consistency in year two of Lombardi’s offense, Ebron emerging as the third option in the passing game would give him an excellent opportunity to jump into the TE1 range. Our projections are less bullish for the second-year player. We have him finishing in the TE2 range with 545 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions.
“He’s Still Megatron”
Remember when Calvin Johnson was the consensus first wide receiver taken in fantasy drafts? After two injury-plagued seasons, Johnson has fallen into the middle and end of the second round in some drafts this offseason. Clay wanted to know if we can expect Johnson to be back to his old self this year.
“I think so,” Twentyman said. “Injuries are the biggest factor. If you want to talk about decline when he’s on the field, he played in 13 games and still had 77 catches for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s just the injuries. He’s missed five games in two years – that was more than he missed in his previous six seasons. When he’s on the field, he’s still Megatron. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be just as productive.”
Johnson had a very strong finish to the 2015 season. The improvements along the offensive line and another offseason in Lombardi’s scheme should help Johnson take a step forward too. Our projections have Johnson bouncing back with 1,324 yards and nine touchdowns on 90 receptions.
Your Sleeper At Wide Receiver Is…
How about a sleeper? Clay wanted to know who Twentyman thinks we should be watching for at the wide receiver position this season.
“You look at Lance Moore, and he’s played in this offense in New Orleans for nine years,” Twentyman said. “He knows Joe Lombardi’s system in and out. I’ve talked to Calvin Johnson who’s said he’s come in and showed Calvin Johnson things within this offense right away. Matthew Stafford has already got a comfort level with him. He’s a guy that I think flies under the radar a little bit. You’ve got that true slot receiver that the Lions haven’t had to roam the underneath routes and be a check-off guy for Matthew Stafford. He could be a guy that surprises people with 30 catches.”
Moore hasn’t been fantasy relevant for a while now, but Twentyman’s take is interesting nonetheless. If Moore emerges as a consistent and reliable underneath threat, this could take away targets from Golden Tate and Ebron in the same area of the field. Moore is a mastermind of the scheme, and his experience could land him a bigger role in the early season than most expect.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy and he covers the NFC East beat for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.