Detroit Lions: Predicting Top Offensive, Defensive Stat Leaders for 2012-13
Stats never tell the whole story, but they're a fun story to tell.
And during the doldrums of NFL news (draft hype has worn off, OTAs are over and training camp hasn't started yet), fun is exactly what we should aim for.
It's that, or continue to dwell on the Miami Heat or take the emotional roller coaster ride that is the Detroit Tigers, which has basically comprised the entirety of my Twitter feed over the last two weeks.
But not to worry. Though football season is still well off, it creeps ever closer without us even realizing it.
A week from now, it will be July. At the end of July, training camp starts. Shortly after training camp starts, the preseason begins, and by that point, the anticipation for the regular season is both more and less bearable than it has been since the August before.
So it's coming down the pipe, we just have to be patient. And to help bide the time, let's all speculate wildly (but strategically) about who will lead the Lions in key statistical categories in 2012. I'm not talking about predicting the stats themselves (though if you have a hunch, feel free to share), just who wins the categories.
A couple of things before we dive in.
First, these are hard, measurable stat categories. None of this "most improved" (Titus and Willie Young, no relation) or "toughest" (Matthew Stafford and Kyle Vanden Bosch) business. We're talking yards, sacks, tackles—tangible stuff.
Second, these are not stat predictions. These are stat leader predictions. What you're getting here is basically me using the current situation compared with past statistical performances to predict the likely leader in key stat categories in 2012. I may hint at values to look for or extrapolate some numbers onto next season, but that's just me messing with stats, not making predictions. That comes later.
Finally, I originally had the offensive categories split into "most yards" and "most touchdowns." And then I realized that in each case, I had the same winner for both categories in every area. So when I say "leading" in the headline, I mean in both yards and TDs.
Got all that? Then let the debate/angry comments/shower of praise begin.
Leading Passer: Matthew Stafford
A stat that doesn't get the attention it deserves is the incredible way Matthew Stafford finished the 2011 season.
Sure, everyone talks about how the Lions secondary got carved up for 946 yards and nine touchdowns in its last two games of the 2011 season (or rather the first two games of the 2012 calendar year).
What nobody talks about is the fact that in those same two games, Stafford gave as good as his defense was bad, passing for 900 yards and eight touchdowns. Over his last four games, he averaged over 400 yards and 3.75 touchdown passes a game.
And with the toughness Stafford showed to play through a broken finger and start 17 games last season, any lingering questions about his viability are all but gone.
The question at this point is not whether he'll lead the team in all passing categories, but the rest of the league as well.
Leading Rusher: Mikel Leshoure
You don't have to tell me it's a risky proposition to list a second-year player as a stat leader after missing the first 18 games of his career.
But honestly, who else is it going to be? Plain and simply, Leshoure is the guy I most trust to be healthy for 14 games. He has no notable history of injury in college (or before), and while his injury was perhaps the most severe one possible for a running back, it was also incredibly fluky.
Leshoure has been injured a lot less than either Jahvid Best or Kevin Smith, but also notable is that Leshoure is actually intended to be more of a workhorse back from scrimmage.
Even in the unlikely event that everybody stays healthy all year, Best is more dangerous as a receiver than on handoffs, and Smith's role is to spell Leshoure.
So in either case, if we're talking about rushing yards from scrimmage, Leshoure is almost certainly the guy. I give him the edge in scores as well, given the likelihood that he sees the ball over any other back in goal-line situations.
Leading Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson
I have high hopes for Titus Young to become a strong second WR option in the passing game this season.
That said, all I'm really predicting is that maybe he's the reason Calvin Johnson doesn't double-up every other player on the team in receiving yards and TDs like he did last year.
Like Stafford, the question is not how many team categories Johnson will lead in 2012, but how many league categories he leads and perhaps how many all-time team records he breaks. That's really all I'm concerned about here. This is an easier call than Stafford.
Leading Receiver (non-WRs): Brandon Pettigrew
Calvin Johnson has the wide receiver stats so easily locked up that I felt the need to at least let somebody else have a shot.
So this is the category for the best receiver who is not actually a wide receiver (so basically, RB or TE). Brandon Pettigrew is the pick, but (a healthy) Best is a close second.
Although Pettigrew has been a huge part of the Lions' passing game since his rookie year, I'm tempted to predict a decline in his production due to the Lions' increased attention to the receiver position.
But really, if the Lions can get the intermediate passing game going by running receivers over the middle, maybe that will actually open Pettigrew up to do more than just be a three-yard safety valve. Maybe his targets will go down, but his YPR will go up. We know he'll continue to be a regular target in the end zone, if nothing else.
More importantly, Pettigrew has been a consistent weapon for Stafford since they came into the league together as 2009 first-round picks, and I don't picture Stafford suddenly just not throwing the ball his way because he has new toys in the offense. Only the circumstances might change.
Of course, I'll still readily admit that Best is a more dangerous weapon in the offense, and he could end up with more yards on fewer touches. But Pettigrew has been healthy and consistent over the past two seasons; Best has been anything but.
Until Best proves that he can get healthy and stay that way, Pettigrew gets my vote here. By a little bit.
Most Total Yards from Scrimmage: Jahvid Best
In his 2010 rookie season, Jahvid Best compiled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, good for second on the team.
Putting aside the fact that Best was a rookie in 2010, consider also that he played in exactly two games in which he was fully healthy. There were six games in 2010 in which Best had 10 or fewer total touches, including the Thanksgiving Day game against new England, which he missed entirely.
But let's just say Best is healthy in 2012. We're all hoping it anyway, and I know I've taken Best off a number of other categories because of health, but this one isn't as close as the others, so just go with it.
Let's say we take the games Best has played in while reasonably healthy (we'll say his first two games of 2010 and only six games of 2011) and extrapolate that over a 16-game season. What would we get?
That's an average of just over 118 total (combined rushing and receiving) yards per game. Over 16 games, it comes out to 1,890 total yards.
In 2011, Calvin Johnson led the team in total yards with 1,692 on one of the greatest single seasons by a wide receiver ever. Even if he duplicates that success, where does he find another 200 yards?
And is there any reason to believe a healthy third-year Best wouldn't be even better than his rookie version? Sure, his touches may decline with Mikel Leshoure on the field, but that only serves to keep him fresher and move him into his more natural "scatback" role.
After all, it isn't as though the Lions are suddenly going to ignore Best's presence. When healthy, he's the only guy other than Johnson who can simply beat every other guy on the field and score from anywhere. Just give him the ball in space and watch the magic happen.
When healthy, that is.
Most Sacks: Cliff Avril, DE
If you think about it, this isn't even difficult.
Since Jim Schwartz and company took hold of the Lions, Cliff Avril has increased his sack output by about three sacks each year (from 5.5 in 2009, to 8.5 in 2010, to 11 in 2011).
While I'm not suggesting this trend continues in a linear fashion until he ultimately breaks Michael Strahan's single-season record in 2016, I am saying that the man is improving each year, and he looks to be close to prime condition.
Even if the Lions' second-best pass-rusher, Ndamukong Suh, returns to form as a dominant force in the middle, his rookie season yielded 10 sacks. That's incredible for a DT, but this category isn't "most sacks relative to the usual number of sacks by position."
If Suh returns even to producing numbers that are eye-popping for his position (10 sacks), he still falls short of Avril's 2011 total (11 sacks), which I fully expect him to improve upon in 2012.
I'm not expecting either Corey Williams or Nick Fairley to approach those types of numbers, and Kyle Vanden Bosch notched eight last year but isn't exactly at the point in his career where he'd improve.
Of course, while Detroit has a deep rotation on the defensive line, I'm not going to predict a rotational lineman (Willie Young comes to mind) to lead the team in sacks, if only because the snaps won't be there to justify it.
So barring a major shakeup of some kind, Avril is the runaway winner in sacks and further justifies his value in what increasingly looks like a franchise tag year. That will be great for the 2012 season, less so for the 2013 offseason.
Most Tackles: Stephen Tulloch, MLB
First off, tackles are perhaps one of the most misleading stats in football. I mean, obviously making tackles is preferable to missing tackles, but making a tackle doesn't always mean a player has done something good.
If a cornerback leads the team in tackles, that doesn't necessarily mean he's a great defender. It could just mean he keeps letting his receiver catch the ball.
Safety leads in tackles? How many of those were running backs stopped at the line of scrimmage, and how many were running down the ball-carrier 40 yards down the field?
To drive this point home, here's a partial list of some recent single-season tackle leaders for the Lions:
Paris Lenon (2008), 121 tackles
Kenoy Kennedy (2005), 98 tackles
Earl Holmes (2003-2004), 97 and 111 tackles
Chris Cash (2001), 100 tackles
And I mean, how good were those guys? Regular Hall of Famers, the lot of them, right?
So now that I'm done tearing down tackles as a statistic that tells anyone anything, let me also say that leading the team in tackles isn't necessarily a bad thing, either.
I mean, safeties tend to get a lot of tackles because the guys in front of them missed theirs (this would be "breaking into the second level"), so it's generally better when the guys closer to the front of the defense make tackles, right?
Guys like Stephen Tulloch.
Tulloch is the obvious choice to repeat as leading tackler in 2012, and he's a man who earns the title.
Sure, Tulloch has a handful of tackles each year in which he has to chase someone down after a big gain, or he gets an assist when another player pretty much has the play wrapped up.
But Tulloch also knows what he's doing out there. There's an equal or greater number of instances in which he diagnoses a play instantly and smashes the ball-carrier the moment he gets to what was supposed to be a hole in the defense.
Tulloch isn't just the field general on defense as MIKE linebacker. He also puts himself in position to be the vanguard, and once he's in position, he doesn't often miss his mark.
Those aren't just tackles, those are stops. And if that was an official NFL statistic, Tulloch would probably lead in those, too.
Most Forced Fumbles: Cliff Avril, DE
So Avril becomes the only guy to lead two different categories, and there's a very good reason why:
Avril is doubling up his stats.
You see, Avril has 14 career forced fumbles in four years in the league. That's impressive, but it gets much better.
You see, I went through the game logs dating back to 2008 to check on the circumstances of those fumbles, and it turns out each and every one of Avril's 14 career forced fumbles came on a sack. That's 14 instances of Avril getting to the quarterback and ripping the ball out of his hand.
Now what if I told you that Avril has 30 career sacks, and he is therefore forcing a fumble on just about every other sack he notches?
Two slides ago, I said I expected Avril to surpass his career mark of 11 sacks set last season. On those 11 sacks, he notched six forced fumbles, good for second in the NFL behind Terrell Suggs, who forced seven.
So what does that give Avril? Are we talking 14 sacks, seven fumbles? Maybe 15 and eight? That's getting a bit lofty, but it isn't like Avril is over the hill. If anything, his best is yet to come. That's the way he's trending, anyway.
Realistically, Avril's forced fumble rate is probably unsustainably high (especially with his increasing sack totals), and he may not go off for eight forced fumbles next season. After all, he doesn't have the luxury of running down Tim Tebow from his blind side (good for two FFs in 2011) next season.
But if we're talking about leading the team, he doesn't have to. Not nearly. Kyle Vanden Bosch was second on the team in forced fumbles last year with four. Nobody else had more than one.
That's because fumbles are difficult to force with any regularity. One of the first things any current NFL player learned about the game was how to hold onto the football without fumbling. At this level, it is prohibitively difficult to force fumbles with any more purpose than just laying a hard hit and "hey, look what I found."
Avril is an exception. He's a pass-rushing specialist. He either hits the quarterback, or the play is already behind him. That earns the man some flak, but it is also exactly what makes Avril so dangerous. He gets to the quarterback with regularity, and he gets the quarterback to put the ball on the ground with regularity.
He has done it consistently over the first four years of his career, starting off as a rookie with four forced fumbles in five-and-a-half sacks in limited playing time. Why in the world would I predict anyone else but perhaps the most talented strip-sack artist in the game to lead the team in forced fumbles?
Most Interceptions: Chris Houston, CB
Maybe these predictions aren't branching out too far from the ordinary, and maybe that's boring. My guess is that with few exceptions, these guys are exactly who you expected (and exactly who led in these categories last season).
That's fine, because my goal here isn't to Bayless my way to notoriety by making brash, unfounded statements with no statistical or factual evidence. It's to provide valuable, as-accurate-as-possible analysis grounded in reality and research.
And logic dictates that while it may be boring and safe, players in their mid-20s who performed well last year should continue to build upon that success under similar circumstances in 2012. That means Avril leads again in sacks, Tulloch leads again in tackles, and Chris Houston leads again in interceptions.
Now, there are reasons to doubt Houston. He had all of four interceptions over his first four seasons in the league before exploding with five (two returned for TDs) in 2011.
We can't say for sure whether that's a flash in the pan or a sign that Houston has finally improved his ball skills, but we can say that Houston earned his picks in 2011. Only one of the five came on a tipped pass (against Kansas City).
The other four were a result of Houston either sticking with his man downfield or reading the play and jumping a short route. Those aren't lucky plays, those are skill plays by a cornerback who reads the quarterback and knows what he's doing.
Another interesting point that won't show up in the record books: All five of Houston's interceptions came in Lions territory. Two came in the end zone (one of which was returned 100 yards to the opposite end zone), and two others came inside the red zone. The fifth? A pick-six returned 56 yards to key a 24-point comeback against Dallas.
Those are clutch picks that create huge momentum swings. Don't believe me? The Lions were 5-0 in games where Houston hauled in a pick, and they won those five games by an average of 23.8 points.
So if nothing else, Lions fans ought to hope Houston leads the team in interceptions. Good things seem to happen with the ball in his hands.
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