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2016 NFC North Preview: Lions will replace Megatron by committee

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No one player can replace Calvin Johnson, but the Lions have a good formula in place to fill in for his lost production.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Calvin Johnson was the second overall pick in 2007. Matthew Stafford was the first overall pick in 2009. Ndamukong Suh was the 2nd overall pick in 2010. In 2011, the union and owners negotiated a new CBA that instituted a rookie wage scale, capping the earnings possible by new draftees and leaving a bigger chunk of the pie available for veteran players (and, of course, the owners). Since the 2011 change, the Lions have been haunted by the contracts of their three huge stars, and truthfully, there wasn’t that much the front office could do about it.

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, Matthew Stafford is a good, if not great quarterback, Suh was an extremely valuable defensive tackle, and Calvin Johnson is one of the five best receivers of all time. The problem for the Lions’ front office is that none of these players came at a discount, and none of these players was good enough to make the Lions into a consistent force. The NFL is a hard salary cap league, and to be a truly great team you need to get surplus value from your players. Because these players all originally signed before the CBA change, they were never bargains. Matthew Stafford signed out of college for 6 years and $72 million, with $41.7 million guaranteed. Suh signed a 5 year, $60 million contract with $40 million guaranteed. Johnson signed for 6 years and $64 million with $27.2 million guaranteed. They probably did get some surplus value from Megatron, but they probably paid for exactly what they got from Suh, and while Stafford isn’t a bad player, the bubble that existed for rookie QB deals at the time probably resulted in the Lions being underwater on him. If all of these players had been drafted post-2011, the Lions could have loaded up the roster with an excellent supporting cast, but while the Lions haven’t exactly been bad in the Stafford/Suh/Johnson era, they’ve never been able to get over the top.

The stereotypical reaction of any talk radio caller, faced with any problem on the team they cheer for, is to advocate for that team to trade for or sign the best guy out there no matter how expensive that player might be. The draft essentially foisted this moronic scenario on the Lions, and while it’s nice to have these three players, they also need to fill out 50 additional spots on the team. Suh joined the Dolphins last season, and the surprise retirement of Johnson leaves only Stafford, who is signed only through 2017. This Lions team is drastically different from the 2015 squad, and the front office - now led by former Patriots’ Director of Pro Scouting Bob Quinn - hasn’t wasted any time in attempting to reload and contend. They were big players in the offseason, they’ve had a year to move on from the disastrous Joe Lombardi offense to the hilarious Jim Bob Cooter offense, and there is a lot of potential here. The only question is whether it will be enough to ascend in a competitive NFC North.

Offense

One of my favorite sections in Moneyball is the discussion of how the A’s will replace Jason Giambi, who, in his final season with the team, slashed .342/.477/.660 with 38 home runs and a league-leading 47 doubles. They cannot sign an equivalent player, so instead they piece together spare parts from several older players to replace this lost production. They take a little Jeremy Giambi (.390 OBP, 8 HRs in 42 games), a little David Justice (.376 OBP, 11 HRs in 118 games) and some Scott Hatteberg (.374 OBP, 15 HRs in 136 games) and while they don’t completely replace Jason Giambi, they provide excellent production at a fraction of the cost. The Lions are facing the surprise retirement of Calvin Johnson, the Barry Sanders of wide receivers, and replacing him will be no easy task, but they’ve taken a similar approach to what the A’s did with Giambi.

1. The Deep Threat

Replacing someone of Johnson’s caliber is almost impossible, and when used properly, he is the perfect fit for Stafford, a strong-armed gunslinger who can put the ball where only Johnson can get it. They will be worse for not having him on the team, but they’ve also built a solid offense with a lot of weapons. Marvin Jones isn’t Calvin Johnson, but Jones has been a good deep threat in his short career. In 2015, 13 of his 65 receptions (20%) over 103 targets went for 20 yards or more. Johnson saw 16 of his 88 receptions (18%) over 149 targets go for 20 yards or more. Jones ran plenty of deep routes, saw a higher percentage of of his targets result in 20 yard gains, caught a higher percentage of balls generally, and was a completely adequate deep threat.

This may sound like I am saying Jones is “better” than Johnson, and nothing could be further from the truth. This is in some regards apples-to-oranges. Jones was seeing passes from Andy Dalton, not Matthew Stafford, and he was the beneficiary of having A.J. Green on the field as well. We’re also talking about the 2015 version of Johnson, who, while still very good, isn’t the transcendent talent he once was, and Johnson was charged with beating the other team’s best cover guy and making difficult catches routinely. Jones isn’t Johnson, but for this one purpose, you could do worse.

2. The tough catch over the middle

Once upon a time, Anquan Boldin caught passes from Kurt Warner, and all was right with the world. Then he moved to the Ravens and did some nice work for the thoroughly mediocre Joe Flacco, got himself a ring, and moved on to Colin Kaepernick in his “I have forgotten how to throw” phase, and ended very sadly in Blaine Gabbert limbo. Boldin is getting up there at 36 and struggled last season, mostly due to the 49ers’ issues at quarterback. Boldin is typically a medium route monster. In 2013 and 2014, about half of his receptions came on passes labeled “medium” for depth, with about 33% coming short, and the remainder spread between “deep” and “bomb”.* Last year over half of his receptions were short, with just a third hitting the middle of the field. His catch rate also dipped a bit. It would not be surprising to see some decline from Boldin, but I suspect given a decent quarterback and an offense that isn’t a crime against football that he can still make those tough catches within 20 yards. Calvin Johnson is one of the best deep threats of all time, but he was also extremely valuable at using his height to make tough catches in traffic and near the end zone. By adding Boldin on a one-year deal, they are looking to replace the Johnson who showed up when they needed to convert on 3rd and medium-to-long. For under $3 million, Boldin is an absolute steal.

*Source - Football Outsiders’ Almanac

3. Old Reliable

Golden Tate continues to give many Packer fans conniptions years after he was the beneficiary of the Fail Mary, and he will look to take over as the true number one receiver for the Lions. Tate is more than capable of this. While he’s very different from Johnson, he offers a well-rounded skill-set, adept at generating huge amounts of YAC as well as going deep. The Lombardi/Cooter era of offensive coordinators has seen Tate wasted as a deep threat - with the Seahawks he was running as much as 20% of his routes down the field vs. just 10% last season - but Tate is more than capable of filling any role that needs filling, of getting open in desperate situations, and of drawing attention away from Jones and Boldin.

Stafford and Cooter

If there is a concern about the offense it is that Jim Bob Cooter still isn’t playing to Stafford’s greatest strength. When he took over for Joe Lombardi midway through 2015, Cooter’s first order of business was to remove high-risk, low reward plays from the playbook. When Matthew Stafford is asked to throw an out pattern, you can be sure of two things:

  1. The ball will get there in a hurry.
  2. The ball will probably not be precisely located.

Out patterns are among the most interceptable balls a quarterback can throw and missing inside gives an overaggressive DB a clear shot. Timing routes like the out were staples of the Lombardi offense and the results were some truly poor games, and 11 picks (if you count the KC transition game) from Stafford in the first half of the season.

Now, in fairness to Lombardi, the Lions faced a much tougher slate in the first half featuring Denver, Seattle, Arizona, and Kansas City. Cooter was almost certainly going to be more successful even if he didn’t change a thing, but what he did change seemed to work. Stafford drastically cut his interception total over the second half of the season, and the changes he made to the run game in moving away from Lombardi’s zone blocking scheme resuscitated Joique Bell (who is now gone). The problem as I see it is that Cooter still isn’t taking full advantage of Stafford. Screen passes are not a solid basis for a well-functioning NFL offense, and while Stafford screen passes are less likely to turn into disasters, he’s still not a great short, touch passer. The big question for me is all about whether Jones and Tate are actually allowed to work deep. A “short and deep” approach to passing can work well, but so far there hasn’t been enough deep, and hucking bombs is when Stafford is at his best. Cooter’s offense was still extremely conservative; it worked because it cut down on mistakes, but it also worked because of the level of competition the Lions faced. There are weapons here as I didn’t even touch on, such as pass-catching running back dynamo Theo Riddick. Whether Cooter decides to fully utilize them or instead plays it safe and rely on the defense remains to be seen. Speaking of the defense…

Defense

Two seasons ago Detroit finished 3rd in defensive DVOA behind Ndamukong Suh and a truly outstanding line, a healthy and talented linebacking corps, and an improving secondary. Suh moved on to bigger and more expensive things, and it’s tempting to blame the drop to 16th in DVOA on the defection of their biggest defensive star. But just as it is overly simplistic to blame all of the Packer offensive decline of 2015 on the Jordy Nelson injury, Suh’s departure is only a small part of the story.

The Detroit defense was severely hampered by injuries in 2015, leading to one of their worst performances in years. Wisconsin standout DeAndre Levy missed the majority of the season with several injuries. Defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker played in only 4 games and defensive back Rashean Mathis appeared in just 7 games. While the Lions may not return to their once-dominant form, the makings of a very good defense are all present. Ziggy Ansah is a star, coming off of a 14.5-sack season and playing well in all facets. With the return of a healthy Walker, promising rookie A’Shawn Robinson out of Alabama, and perhaps a healthy Haloti Ngata, the Lions’ defensive line could be quite formidable. If that is the case, Tahir Whitehead and Levy, (if he can recover from his hip injury) should benefit and remain tackle-machines, and Darius Slay is still an up-and-coming young corner. The secondary is a weakness overall, but Glover Quin is still serviceable, and if 4th-round pick Miles Killebrew develops the unit could be average, which, paired with a potentially fearsome pass rush, could be good enough.

Depth is an issue and the Lions won’t be able to withstand too many injuries on defense, but they did a good job restocking the lower tiers of the roster. Most importantly, their schedule is soft as church music. The NFC North schedules are weak overall, and the Lions face the Rams and Saints whereas the Packers get the Seahawks and Falcons. Moreover, it’s quite possible the the Lions will get a Brett Hundley-led Packers for the final game of the season. The most difficult out-of-division game on the Lions’ schedule may be the Colts, or perhaps the Romo-charged Cowboys. There is not a game on the schedule that they are incapable of winning.

This defense is a few injuries away from being annihilated by decent passing offenses, but if they can stay reasonably healthy, they could peak as a top-ten unit - not quite as high as the Suh-led defenses of old, but high enough to contend for a playoff spot.

Conclusion

This is an interesting team, and other than drafting a long snapper, I am a fan of how they handled their offseason and draft. Bob Quinn went with offensive linemen on two of his first three picks with Robinson sandwiched in the middle, and after that he went for defensive depth. They may be a work in progress, but the Lions are not digging themselves up from the depths of the Phil Emery Bears. The offense is well-constructed, the defense has potential, and there is no reason they cannot contend again immediately so I suspect they manage to creep over .500. They are not quite as good as the Vikings, but the gap isn’t as large as Minnesota would like.