QB Matthew Stafford
In 2010, the Lions featured a bevy of talented playmakers at the offensive skill positions as well as a decent offensive line that allowed quarterback Shaun Hill to average a respectable 19.1 fantasy points per game, despite his lacking the arm to consistently connect downfield with star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. With the addition of rookies Mikel Leshoure at running back and Titus Young at wide receiver, and more help along the offensive line, the future looks bright for third-year quarterback Matthew Stafford, provided he can stay healthy. That’s a big question mark since Stafford has suffered four shoulder injuries as a pro, has undergone surgery in the offseason, and has started just 13 games in the first two years of his career. The talent is there and the Lions possess tantalizing offensive potential, but relying on Stafford as your QB1 is a massive gamble. Draft him as a QB2 with upside and maybe you’ll have great trade bait by mid-season.
RB Jahvid Best
Jahvid Best looked like a fantasy star during the first two weeks of his rookie season, scoring a whopping 56 fantasy points on 98 rushing yards, 170 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. Of course, banking on two and half touchdowns per game from a Lions running back is folly. And, sure enough, Best didn’t find the end zone again until Week 16 when he scored his last touchdown of the season. After Week 2, he averaged a pedestrian 6.5 fantasy points per game, although his lack of production can partially be blamed on a turf toe injury. The Lions have added the bruising Mikel Leshoure to the mix, and he will almost certainly handle the short-yardage role and has a decent chance to end up splitting carries with Best. While Best clearly has the talent to be a productive running back, at this point the split of touches is likely only 60/40 in his favor, with little if any of those touches coming inside the opponents 10-yard line. Throw in Best’s injury history and he shapes up as a mid-tier RB3 with upside for 2011.
RB Mikel Leshoure
Let’s go down the rookie running back opportunity checklist: Incumbent is coming off a disappointing season? Check. Incumbent is injury prone? Check. Incumbent isn’t a great short-yardage back? Check. Team’s offense is a powerhouse? Well, there’s no check here, but the potential is there. Add it all up, and Leshoure figures to be one of the most intriguing backup running backs in 2011. Although he is a solid 225 pounds, Leshoure is more than just a power back. He has the ability to make defenders miss in the open field and possesses enough speed to break the occasional long run. Leshoure should be considered a low-end RB3 or high RB4 with significant upside, and he could be a fine flex option in 12-team leagues. If you’re going after Jahvid Best, Leshoure is a must-have handcuff who will be taken in the middle rounds of this year’s fantasy drafts—probably only a round or two after Best.
WR Calvin Johnson
After a disappointing campaign in 2009, Johnson bounced back strongly in 2010, catching 77 passes for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns, despite playing with starting quarterback Matthew Stafford for just over two games and playing through an ankle injury. Backup Shaun Hill enjoyed a fine season, but his arm is no match for Stafford’s, and Megatron has the potential to be the top-rated fantasy wide receiver in 2011 if Stafford can remain upright for 16 games (granted, that’s a big “if”). The Lions added rookie Titus Young to challenge Nate Burleson, so Johnson figures to once again see plenty of targets. In fact, he could be even more productive if one of his sidekicks begins contributing more regularly; he often sees double coverage when there is no threat on the opposite side of the field. Johnson is clearly an upper-echelon WR1.
WR Nate Burleson
Disclaimer: I’ve never liked Burleson and I like him less now. In 2010, playing alongside Calvin Johnson, he proved just how average he is (or has become, if he were ever that talented). With Johnson seeing plenty of double coverage, Burleson was the epitome of mediocrity, catching only 55 passes for 625 yards and six touchdowns. The touchdowns padded his fantasy stats, boosting his points-per-game average to 7.0. At 29, his upside is what he produced last year and his downside, well, it’s basically the floor. Surely you can come up with a more inspired option for your fantasy team’s WR4 or WR5. Don’t let me down.
WR Titus Young
With Calvin Johnson atop the wide receiver depth chart and a pile of question marks after him, the Lions wisely used a second-round pick to upgrade the position with the selection of Boise State playmaker Titus Young. While Young lacks ideal size at 5’11”, 174 pounds, he brings plenty of speed and playmaking ability to the table. Look for him to be used mainly on special teams as a returner and out of the slot, which limits his upside. The Lions clearly see an Az-Zahir Hakim/Brandon Stokley potential, and with the attention Johnson warrants outside, Young could surprise (although relying him to be a consistent fantasy producer in his rookie season is looking for trouble). He’s worth monitoring on the waiver wire in redraft leagues and worth adding to your dynasty squad.
WR Derrick Williams
Detroit used a 2009 third-round pick on Williams in the hopes that the talented college playmaker would produce as both a receiver and a returner. Sure enough, he’s been a complete bust. Is there a theme here? Detroit Lions…Wide receiver…bust? Yep, that’s it. Sure, they hit on Calvin Johnson, but that’s like throwing beach balls into the ocean. Here’s what you need to know about Williams: despite having the two forgettable, aging players ahead of him in Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson, he couldn’t muster up any playing time. Not to mention his career stats: two years, 18 games, nine receptions. With rookie second-round pick Titus Young on board, what is going to change in 2011? Not much even with the Lions releasing Johnson.
TE Brandon Pettigrew
Pettigrew entered 2010 as a big question mark courtesy of the torn ACL that ended his 2009 rookie season in Week 12. He recovered quickly enough to avoid the PUP list and increased his reception total from 31 in 2009 to 71 last season—good enough to finish third in that category among tight ends. He ended the season as the 11th-ranked tight end thanks to his 722 yards and four touchdowns, but most of that production came with Shaun Hill at quarterback. Hill is clearly more of a checkdown artist than Matthew Stafford, and getting deep is not a big part of Pettigrew’s game. If he is going to improve or even duplicate his fantasy production from last season, it’s going to have to come from increasing his touchdown count. The problem there is that the Lions possess the league’s top wide receiver red zone threat in Calvin Johnson. Look for Pettigrew’s fantasy production to drop in 2011. He’s a TE2 entering the season.
TE Tony Scheffler
With Brandon Pettigrew coming off a torn ACL and Scheffler’s history of making big plays (a nifty 13.7 yards per catch heading into 2010), it didn’t seem unrealistic that Scheffler would put together a solid season in an improving Detroit offense. Unfortunately for him and his fantasy owners, only the second half of that equation came to fruition. While Scheffler had a career-high 72 targets, he only caught 45 passes for 378 yards, averaging a career-low 8.4 yards per catch. Furthermore, he scored only one touchdown, also a career-low. With Pettigrew having entrenched himself as the team’s main threat at tight end, Scheffler’s arrow will be pointing straight down unless he finds a new team in 2011.