6 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Detroit Lions
How well will the players take to the new schemes on both sides of the ball?
Which players step up and outperform expectations in the way DeAndre Levy did a year ago?
It's still pretty early in the process to know the answers to these and other questions. Yet that doesn't mean we can't try to anticipate those answers.
Here are six predictions for the 2014 Detroit Lions. Some are fairly self-evident. Others are bold, perhaps crazily so. We'll all find out how smart, or foolish, these look once the season gets fired up in September.
The Sack Total Goes Way Up
For as much hype as the Lions defensive front gets, they turned in a surprisingly low sack total in 2013.
Ndamukong Suh turned in an outstanding season, consistently disrupting opposing offenses. Pro Football Focus graded him with a highly impressive 39.9 score, second-best among all defensive tackles. Despite that, the Pro Bowler netted just 5.5 sacks.
Nick Fairley, another seriously disruptive interior presence, turned in some of the best individual game performances in the league last year—just ask Bears fans. He too struggled to translate all that pressure into actual sacks, bagging just six despite registering 35 combined quarterback hits and hurries.
Both starting ends, Ezekiel Ansah and Willie Young, also thrived at generating pressure. They combined for just 11 sacks (eight by rookie Ansah) on a combined 81 pressures and hits.
The Lions ranked 28th in the league in total sacks with 33, an unacceptable return on its heavy investment in the defensive front.
That is going to change in 2014. I foresee a dramatic uptick in sacks.
Some of my optimism stems from the new defensive scheme. Expect more efficient and varied blitzes in the new defense instead of the predictable, typically ineffective extra pressure under former coach Jim Schwartz.
Adding a dynamic presence like Kyle Van Noy as a linebacker, who can push 10 sacks as a rookie, will help as well. So will natural progress from second-year ends Ansah and Devin Taylor, as well as a healthy return from Jason Jones, who can finish pressures from both end and tackle.
Last year the Carolina Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks. The Lions won't quite make it that high, but Detroit will finish in the top five in 2014 with 57 quarterback sacks this season. That's an extra 1.5 sacks per game, and it will make a huge difference to the secondary playing behind them too.
Chris Houston Will Not Play in Detroit Again
For better or worse, Chris Houston has been the top corner in Detroit for most of the last four seasons.
That is going to change, and soon. Houston recently had surgery on his problematic toe, which played a role in his lousy performance in '13. He is out indefinitely and was not present at Tuesday's open practice:
Lions coach Jim Caldwell on Chris Houston being absent as he rehabs from toe surgery: "We excused him."— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) June 10, 2014
Houston isn't going to get any better by not practicing, while the bevy of youngsters gunning to take his place can take full advantage of getting his reps.
The Lions even brought back veteran Rashean Mathis, who was the primary starter opposite Houston a year ago and who dramatically outplayed him, too. With the expected ascension of second-year player Darius Slay and a battle of young talents in the slot between Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson, there is more than enough potential on the roster to replace Houston.
While his contract is structured such that cutting him actually costs more than keeping him for one more year, I still believe we've seen the last of Chris Houston in a Detroit Lions uniform. I predict he will go on the PUP list to start the year and then never get activated from that designation.
Fantasy Owners Will Not Like Detroit
One of the ways the Lions are going to improve on the field is in the diversity of the offensive attack. Detroit has several highly talented skill players in Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron.
All of those players seem like very strong fantasy football plays. Most will be drafted fairly early, with Johnson going very high in the first round in most drafts.
Those fantasy owners are in for a disappointment.
While the team's offensive output could be outstanding, it's apt to be spread widely across many players instead of tightly focused on a star or two.
Johnson himself has already alluded to this spreading out of touches after Tuesday's practice:
Saw a lot of Jeremy Ross running with the starters, and Calvin Johnson said he believes Ross will have a significant role on the offense— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) June 10, 2014
Megatron is still going to get his yards and touchdowns, but he's unlikely to garner 145-plus targets again. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans' top target a year ago, had just 136 balls thrown his way in the offensive system being installed by new coordinator Joe Lombardi.
With so many talented weapons, expect Lombardi to exploit the best matchups from game to game and even possession to possession. One week Tate might bag nine receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown, then follow that up with a 3-26-0 stat line.
The same will be true at running back. While both Bush and Joique Bell will threaten to each net over 1,000 yards again, some of their touches are going to go to Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure and whoever wins the fullback battle between Jed Collins and Chad Abram.
Beware drafting any Lions early in your fantasy drafts, except one: Matthew Stafford. He's the common denominator among all those passing targets and the prime beneficiary of the major upgrade in receiving talent.
Matthew Stafford Has His Best Season
This goes hand in hand with the last slide, and it's why the Lions quarterback should be a very hot commodity in the fantasy football world. Matthew Stafford is poised to have an awesome season in 2014.
It's not like he hasn't been highly prolific over the last few years. In the last three seasons, he's become one of two passers in NFL history to top 14,500 yards over that same time frame. The other member of that exclusive club is Drew Brees, who did so in the offense that Detroit will run under Joe Lombardi.
Here is what Stafford has done from 2011-13:
With better weapons around him and an offensive system designed to create more mismatches via scheme instead of individual ability, the 26-year-old can become more efficient and even more lethal.
I believe his yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and QB Rating are all going to improve. While the number of attempts and perhaps the total yards will be down a little from his career peaks, Stafford will take the proverbial next step.
After putting up the following numbers, the national media will be talking about him as the next elite passer. My early forecast for his 2014 stat line:
Those are very optimistic estimates, but Stafford absolutely has the ability to post a line like that in 2014.
Kyle Van Noy Wins Defensive Rookie of the Year
Normally, second-round picks aren't serious contenders for Rookie of the Year honors. But Kyle Van Noy is not the typical second-round pick.
The rangy linebacker from BYU is a perfect fit for the attacking role in new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's versatile scheme.
Detroit figures to ask Van Noy to stay on the field in all situations, and the strident young man has the skills to handle the pressure.
Need a linebacker to cover a tight end deep down the seam? Van Noy can do that.
Dialing up a looping B-gap blitz from the closed end? He checks that box too.
Looking for a backer to chase down a slippery running back making a bounce cut to the edge? Van Noy's the man for that job as well.
Of course, it's splash numbers that generate awards. Fortunately for Detroit, Ezekiel Ansah's old Cougar mate can put those up too.
Look for Van Noy to finish second on the team in tackles, but first in tackles-for-loss. As noted in the first slide, he should approach Ansah's rookie total of eight sacks. Because of his fluidity in space, he figures to challenge DeAndre Levy's six interceptions from a year ago, too.
There will be some stiff competition. Jadeveon Clowney is a physical freak who gets the benefit of playing with J.J. Watt, arguably the best overall player in the NFL right now. Aaron Donald could hit double-digit sacks for the St. Louis Rams if they play him enough. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is already the best safety the Packers have had in years without even playing a snap.
Yet Van Noy will get every chance to best those higher picks. At minimum, he will wind up 2014 seeming like a steal even after the Lions traded up a few spots to land him with the 40th overall pick.
Ford Field Becomes a Distinct Advantage
One of the best ways to restore the roar is to establish Ford Field as a formidable Lions den. It's one of the nicest facilities in all of professional sports, and the fan base can really bring the noise.
Unfortunately, the Lions have not exactly been so ferocious at home the last few years. Over the last four seasons, the record in the friendly confines is a middling 15-17.
That is going to change in 2014. These Lions are going to respond with a roar that will be heard across the league, transforming Ford Field from merely a great place to see a game into a major home-field advantage.
The home opponents are, in order:
- New York Giants
- Green Bay Packers
- Buffalo Bills
- New Orleans Saints
- Miami Dolphins
- Chicago Bears
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Minnesota Vikings
There are just two 2013 playoff teams on that docket, the Saints and Packers. The Lions eviscerated Green Bay in Detroit last year, too.
There is no reason the Lions cannot finish at least 6-2 in Ford Field. The key will be a late stretch, as the last three home games come consecutively in Weeks 13-15.
It says here that the Lions sweep those three games, knock off the Giants in the opener and beat the Bills and Dolphins too. That's six home wins. If they can somehow notch a seventh, especially if it's a repeat domination of the Packers, this Detroit team could very well be playing a ninth home game sometime in January.
All advanced statistics and snap counts are from Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content. All other stats are from NFL.com unless otherwise indicated.
Jeff Risdon is the Lions Featured Columnist. He also is the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL Writer/Draft Analyst for RealGM. You can interact with him on Twitter @JeffRisdon.