QB Matthew Stafford
Considered an injury risk heading into his third year in the league in 2011, Stafford proved his doubters wrong by putting together a Pro Bowl quality season (although he miraculously wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl) by throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. With the Lions struggling to run the ball, Stafford led a high flying passing attack that threw the ball 663 times and attempted more passing plays than any team in the league. Perhaps most impressively, Stafford was able to produce in the clutch, leading the Lions to big comeback wins over the Cowboys, the Vikings and the Raiders in helping Detroit secure their first playoff spot in more than a decade. If you were looking for consistency, Stafford provided that too by registering fewer than 19 fantasy points just once. That’s what happens when you throw for multiple touchdowns 12 times, have eight 300-yard passing games and fail to throw for 250 yards just four times. What’s in store for 2012? Provided Stafford remains healthy, and it is worth noting that four shoulder injuries caused him to miss 19 of his first 32 games in the league, he should finish the season as a top five fantasy quarterback. With Calvin Johnson in the fold and Titus Young expected to build on his impressive rookie season, Stafford has explosive weapons at wide receiver as well as a solid tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, not to mention perhaps a shiny new toy in 2nd round pick Ryan Broyles. While Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady need to be the first quarterbacks off the board, you could make a strong argument that Stafford needs to go number three.
RB Jahvid Best
When Lions head coach Jim Schwartz announced that Best was “week to week” early in training camp, that swirling sound you heard was his fantasy value heading down the drain. The Lions first round pick in the 2010 draft, Best’s first two seasons in the league have been derailed by injuries, including a devastating concussion that forced him to miss the final 10 games of last season. Concussions were also an issue for Best in college so the prognosis for 2012, and the rest of his career for that matter, remains highly uncertain. That is unfortunate because Best is a dynamic playmaker when healthy, capable as an outside runner and a receiving threat out of the backfield. In six games last year, Best averaged 112.8 yards from scrimmage and 14.3 PPG, which is RB1 territory. Since we don’t know when or if Best will return to action and we also don’t know the Lions plans for him if he does return in a backfield that could run three deep with Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure, taking Best in your fantasy draft is a huge gamble. He is nothing more than a late round flier until we see him on the field.
RB Mikel Leshoure
After being a 2nd round selection in the 2011 draft, Leshoure’s prospects looked rosy. Let’s run down Leshoure’s running back opportunity checklist as it looked heading into this rookie season. Incumbent is coming off a disappointing season? Check. Incumbent is injury prone? Check. Incumbent isn’t a great short yardage back? Check. Unfortunately a torn Achilles tendon ended Leshoure’s rookie season in the preseason and he enters 2012 with some major question marks, specifically maturity issues that resulted in the league imposing a two-game suspension and a hamstring problem that caused him to miss the early part of training camp. The suspension came from not one but two marijuana charges so Leshoure’s clearly got some growing up to do. Basically, the Lions don’t know what they have in Leshoure and neither do we. He’s a big back who should excel in short yardage work but he faces competition from Kevin Smith and possibly Jahvid Best for playing time, a pair of backs whose pass catching skills make them better fits in the Lions offense. Leshoure is worth taking a flier on but don’t reach for him expecting him to emerge as an upper tier RB2 in 2012.
RB Kevin Smith
Jahvid Best isn’t day to day, he is week to week. Mikel Leshoure is going to sit out the first two weeks of the season due to a suspension and up until mid-August, he had missed most of training camp due to a sore hamstring. Meet the Lions expected starting running back to open the season – Kevin Smith. What was old is new again in Detroit’s backfield. The old man of the Lions backfield at the ripe old age of 25, Smith returned to the fold in midseason last year, taking over the lion’s share of the team’s running back duties over the final seven games of the season. He put up 535 total yards and scored seven touchdowns over that stretch, despite playing through injuries himself. A solid fit in the Lions offense due to his ability to catch the ball (he had 79 receptions during his first two years in the league), Smith must overcome his own injury history in 2012. He starts the season with a big opportunity and that isn’t something most expected when the Lions chose not to place a RFA tender on him after the 2010 season. Consider Smith a high risk, high reward RB3 this season.
WR Calvin Johnson
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald says Calvin Johnson is the top fantasy wide receiver entering 2012 and we’ll take his word for it. The beast known as Megatron posted career highs across the board in 2011, with 158 targets, 96 receptions, 1,681 receiving yards and 16 touchdown passes, finishing the season as the top ranked fantasy wide receiver with a whopping 16.5 FPts/G. If you’re looking for something to quibble about, it would be Johnson’s production during a five game stretch between Weeks 10 and 14 when Johnson failed to top 100 receiving yards in any game and caught just one touchdown pass. Other than that, it was all sunshine as Johnson hit double-digit fantasy points twelve times and topped 100 receiving yards eight times. Since Johnson has the ability to regularly beat double and even triple teams, he is basically money in the bank given his lack of missed time during his five-year career (just three missed games). The only potential red flag is the health of quarterback Matt Stafford, who put together his first 16 game season in 2011. Megatron needs to be the first wide receiver off the board in 2012 and he makes for a solid 1st round pick. No other wide receiver is even close.
WR Titus Young
Looking to replenish their wide receiver depth chart and provide quarterback Matthew Stafford with another offensive weapon, the Lions wisely used a second round pick in 2011 to acquire Young. And Young didn’t disappoint, putting together a solid rookie season during which he showcased his solid playmaking skills. Despite lacking ideal size at 5’11”, 174 pounds, Young proved capable of lining up outside and finished his rookie season with 48 receptions for 607 yards and six touchdowns. After putting up decent numbers over his first seven games, the speedy Young came on down the stretch catching 33 of his 52 targets over his final nine games for 398 yards and all six of his touchdowns while averaging 8.4 FPts/G over that stretch. That’s WR3 territory, folks. While the Lions figure on passing less in 2012, they will still chuck it around plenty and Young has earned a bigger role at Nate Burleson’s expense. That bodes well for Young’s fantasy prospects as does lining up opposite Calvin Johnson. Look for Young to build upon his solid rookie season and emerge as a low end WR3 in 2012, provided he keeps his maturity issues in check. He is a solid dynasty league prospect.
WR Nate Burleson
In 2011, Burleson had a bigger role in the Lions offense, seeing increases in his targets (86 to 110), completion to target percentage (66.4% in 2011), receptions (73, a career high) and yards (757). That’s the good news. And here’s the bad. Burleson seems to have lost whatever explosiveness he had left, with his yards per reception dropping for the second consecutive season (from 12.9 to 11.4 to 10.4) and his touchdown count declining from six to three. Did we mention the Lions have used 2nd round picks in consecutive years (Titus Young in 2011 and Ryan Broyles this year) to upgrade the wide receiver position? The writing is on the wall, folks. Young had a solid rookie season and figures to earn more looks in 2012, pushing Burleson inside to a slot receiving role more frequently. Considering the Lions are likely to throw it less than they did in 2012 when they led the league in passing plays, Burleson’s fantasy prospects this season aren’t looking so great. And it’s not like he was great in 2011, averaging just 5.9 FPts/G. He’s a WR5 with little upside.
WR Ryan Broyles
Despite having three solid wide receivers, the Lions used a 2nd round pick on Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles even though Broyles suffered a torn ACL last November. The pick was panned somewhat but with Nate Burleson aging and chewing up a decent chunk of salary cap space, Broyles figures to line up as the team’s main slot receiver within a year or two. And there’s a chance he could earn some looks at some point in 2012. More quick than fast and lacking ideal size at 5’10” and 188 pounds, Broyles isn’t a candidate to earn a major role outside but he caught a ton of balls in college, making him an intriguing flier in deep, PPR leagues, although he may not be fully recovered early in the season. Look for Broyles to have a limited role early in the season but monitor his usage and consider him a potential waiver wire candidate by mid-season. He rates as a mid-tier dynasty prospect given his potential role as a target eating slot receiver in a young Lions offense.
TE Brandon Pettigrew
With the Lions stable of running backs struggling with injuries and failing to provide the team with consistent production, Pettigrew emerged as a solid receiving option on short routes and was a target machine, finishing 2011 with the second highest target total amongst tight ends with a whopping 126. Unfortunately, that caused his yards per reception to drop to 9.4 as Pettigrew finished the season with 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns. While that is solid production, it is hard to predict a breakout season for Pettigrew in 2012. If he is going break out, it is going to have to result from increasing his touchdown count. The problem there is that the Lions possess the top wide receiver red zone threat in the league in Calvin Johnson. Also not helping matters is the presence of backup tight end Tony Scheffler who pilfered six touchdowns last season. In 2012, look for Pettigrew to post similar production to what he put up in 2011, making him a lower tier fantasy starter.
TE Tony Scheffler
The Lions reduced Scheffler’s role in their offense during his second year with the team but he still managed to put together a solid 2011 season. Playing second fiddle to a fully healthy Brandon Pettibrew, Scheffler saw his targets decrease from 72 to 42 but his fantasy points increase from 44 to 71. That’s making more with less, folks. Scheffler’s point total jump is directly attributable to his touchdown production as he emerged as a solid option in the red zone, catching five touchdowns between the opposition’s 10 and 20 yard line. While his 2011 production was amazing considering his target total, it is not hard to consider it a bit of a fluke considering he caught a touchdown pass every seven targets. If Pettigrew were to go down, Scheffler is productive enough that he would likely emerge as an upper tier fantasy backup.