Five Things to Watch Heading into Detroit Lions Training Camp
Despite ending the regular season on a three game losing streak and finishing 9-7, the Lions did manage to make the playoffs as a wild card. Unfortunately, they were summarily beaten in the wild card round by the Seattle Seahawks. On offense, they were led by Matthew Stafford, who performed at an MVP level, until a finger injury in Week 14 caused his and the Lions production to fall off drastically. All of the main 2017 offensive weapons return except for red zone magnet Anquan Boldin, who is still a free agent as of July. How the organization replaces that production is one of the five questions that must be answered during Detroit Lions training camp.
1. Can Detroit Replace Boldin’s Red Zone Production?
Golden Tate (nine catches on 17 targets, one TD, two ints)
Marvin Jones (six catches on 15 targets, two TDs)
Anquan Boldin (15 catches for 23 targets, six TDs, one INT)
These are the red zone numbers produced by the Lions wide receivers in 2016. It’s quite apparent that Boldin was the only reliable, productive receiver that Stafford could trust within the 20-yard line. But those numbers were offset by Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions’ offensive coordinator, who designed intelligent plays for the money receivers (running backs and tight ends). That crew had a higher efficiency than the entire receiver core put together. How do the Lions somehow compensate for Boldin’s loss? One possibility could be Theo Riddick, who beat writer Tim Twentyman believes is one of the best red-zone threats in all of football, per DetroitLions.com. The second possible answer leads to our second question …
2. Is This Finally the Breakout Season for Eric Ebron?
All of the fantasy football Twittersphere is debating the merits of Ebron’s possible ascension into the upper tier tight end position for the 2017 season. This would be greatly assisted if the Lions targeted him more consistently in the red zone (six such targets in 2016). Ebron’s overall production has increased every year from his rookie year as seen in this chart:
In turn, his fantasy ranking has been trending in the upward direction as well:
You’ll also notice, he entered the league at 21 — very young for a tight end — so he’s yet to reach his athletic prime. It’s only a matter of time before Ebron shows fantasy footballers and the NFL how dangerous a weapon he can be at the tight end position. The Lions (specifically Jim Bob Cooter) would be prudent to make him one of the focal points in the offense — especially in the red zone, where he could become Matt Stafford’s No. 1 target.
3. Can Rookie Kenny Golladay Win the Third Wide Receiver Job?
Not knowing if they would be able to re-sign Anquan Boldin, Detroit spent their third-round pick on Kenny Golladay, from Northern Illinois. At 6’4’’ and 218 pounds, he has the physical stature to become a future downfield threat if he develops properly. Until then, his first focus should be to win the third wide receiver job. Just in case you’ve forgotten his athletic aspects, here is his metrics from playerprofiler.com:
This training camp and preseason will be important for Golladay to establish a rapport with Stafford so he can take some of the pressure off of Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.
4. Will the Running Game Be Able to Rebound After a Dreadful 2016 Performance?
Without Ameer Abdullah, who suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 2, the already-mediocre running game took a dreadful turn in Detroit. Zach Zenner ended up leading the team with 99 carries at an average of 3.7 yards per attempt, while explosive third-down back Theo Riddick chipped in with 92 carries at an average of 3.9 Y/A. The run game ranked 25th in total efficiency and was barely fantasy relevant in 2016. Despite the injury, the Lions didn’t use any draft capital to address the running back depth chart and will give Abdullah every opportunity to assert himself as the lead back.
5. Is It Possible for Matthew Stafford to Reproduce His 2016 Numbers?
If it weren’t for Stafford’s exceptional play for most of the 2016 season, the Lions would have picked in the top five of the NFL Draft. First and foremost, he established the lowest interception rate of his career at 1.7% (24 TD, 10 INT). Secondly, when the game was close in the fourth quarter and Detroit needed a big play, Stafford was always the one who made it. Eight of Detroit’s nine wins came when the game was within one score. But that style of play can’t be counted upon year-to-year so the Lions must find a way to be more explosive on offense, both running and receiving. Thanks to Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford has morphed into a quarterback who uses the short to intermediate passing game to move the ball, now that the Lions’ don’t have a truly consistent, dependable deep threat. Still, it’s hard to fathom that Stafford can go back-to-back seasons with such a low interception total after opposing defensive coaches get a chance to breakdown the Lions’ offensive schemes.
Despite all of Detroit’s shortcomings, Matthew Stafford is still a top-15 fantasy quarterback coming into 2017 and the possibility of drafting him late and combining him with another late round QB is a sound strategy.
For more updated news, notes and analysis on the Lions training camp, check out DetroitLions.com and follow the team writers as they break down the above issues and many others.