When Matt Millen was named general manager of the Detroit Lions organization, he made it clear that the team needed more speed, youth, talent and playmakers. Four years later, Millen seems to have filled the honolulu blue and silver jerseys full of the above-mentioned traits. With head coach Steve Mariucci and the hands-on Millen entering their third season together, the young but talented Lions offense should be ready to roar in 2005 (pardon the cliché). As a matter of fact, anything less than a mildly explosive offense should be considered a failure with the talent-level the Lions will put on the field.
The Detroit Lions open up a new year with many potential draft choices heading into your fantasy football league. With explosive and superbly talented first round draft picks scattered all over the skill positions on offense, one side of the coin says that you will get talent all over your draft board. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin says that this team is very young and still very, very raw. Drafting many of these players will come to just that, a coin flip. Luckily, most of the draft candidates will fall into the depths of the very end of your draft, minimizing the boom-or-bust factor.
RB KEVIN JONES
Nick West (Mid-to-Late Round 2)
Jones rushed for more yards than any running back in the league over the final seven games last year, including back-to-back performances of 196-yards and 156-yards. He ran for 100 yards or more on four occasions despite not getting a 20-carry game until Dec. 5 and finished with 1,133 yards and six total touchdowns (one receiving).
The Lions will put a lot of three-receiver sets on the field and Jones will be the only man in the backfield. If he isn't blocking on these sets, expect Jones to float in the flats as a check-down or halfback screen option for quarterback Joey Harrington. KJ finished with 28 catches for 180 yards last season, but still has to improve his receiving skills.
Lions' RB Kevin Jones
Jones' explosive running skills and open-field moves make him a home run threat anytime he touches the ball. If he can pick up where he left off last season, expect big dividends for taking this second-year rising star in the final third of round two as your second running back.
Adrian Donofrio (Late Round 1, Early
Brand new keeper-leaguers should absolutely dive onto Kevin if the opportunity presents itself; he's by far the best fantasy pick on the team, and could go surprisingly high in any type of league draft. An ankle injury hampered Kevin from getting the quality carries earlier in the season last year, but once he was 100%, he led the league in yards for the latter half of the year. Steve Mariucci is a run-first coach, and will give Kevin 25-plus carries if he performs. In the west coast offense, Kevin could easily get twenty five to thirty touches a game, making him a Priest Holmes type pick. Jones has polished his pass catching skills this training camp and looks to cement himself in the small crowd of the league's truly great RB's.
WR ROY WILLIAMS
Nick West (Early Round 5)
If a high-ankle sprain hadn't hampered Williams from the fourth game of the season on, he probably would have finished will over 70 catches. Instead, Roy grabbed 54 balls for 817 yards and six touchdowns, including two 100-yard games. The former University of Texas standout should flourish at flanker – a position that will allow him to work in traffic while split end Charles Rogers opens the field up with deeper routes – and be an adequate number one, but likely a more productive number two receiver on your fantasy team.
Throughout his college career and as proven by his rookie campaign, Williams has been known to follow up huge games with minimal ones. However, it is hard to gauge if he has shed the occasional no-show performances because of the ankle injury that hampered his full ability for most of his first year.
Owners should also be aware that Williams has been prone to nagging injuries from his UT days through year one in Detroit. He is, however, the number one receiver on the Lions' depth chart and will probably get the most catches, but not the most touchdowns.
Adrian Donofrio (Mid to Late Round 4)
Despite making circus catches and putting up several 100 yard games, Roy is a guy who is slipping under the radar in many drafts; his average draft position around pick 80-110. Even as he was limited to making cuts and turns only to his left side most of the season, he still managed to grab 8 TD's in a pretty stagnant Detroit offense.
Don't expect Roy to slow down, in fact his stock rises, as most young receivers don't truly take off until their second years. The fact that he performed so well last season speaks well for his future, and this year he heads into the season better conditioned to take on a full NFL schedule. Makes for a very solid second reciever in 10-12 team leagues, and makes for a steal if he's your third.
WR CHARLES ROGERS
Nick West (Anywhere Round 7)
Rogers is the most talented receiver on the Lions' roster and could be one of the best in the game in a few years. There are many ifs, ands or buts with Rogers, though. The main question is if his frail body can hold up to the NFL style of play and the other being how ready he is for contact after playing just three regular season snaps in almost two seasons.
Reports out of Detroit have said Charles has beefed up to nearly 220 pounds (Roy Williams size) from the 202 he was during his first two seasons. If these reports bode true, don't worry about Charles' health and only laugh at the other owners who passed on him when you steal him as a seventh round pick. Despite being 6-foot-3, his lanky frame came under scrutiny as to the reason why his collarbone was broken in each of his first two seasons.
Rogers caught 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns in five games as a rookie. That averages out to just over four catches a game – not too bad for a first-year player. So where does that put him nearly two years later? He'll finish second on the team in catches but have the most yardage because he'll get open deep as the split end in the three-wide receiver set.
What owners should realize is that if the Lions put many three-wide receiver sets on the field, it will leave the receivers in single coverage. Opposing defenses will respect the draw running play or halfback screens that are staples of the West Coast offense and Rogers' natural playmaking ability should allow him to easily burn the single coverage.
Adrian Donofrio (Round 6)
Even though Rogers sat out last year with an injury, having an injury the year before, and being owned by around 5-7% of fantasy coaches, he actually goes HIGHER than Roy Williams in almost every draft. That said, if you are going to gamble on a player like Rogers, don't draft him to be a number one or number two if you can't help it. That way, if you slips by you, you won't have to worry much.
If you do manage to grab him, don't overreach as many fantasy owners are. Granted, he is the most explosive receiver on the team, but he still has health concerns as well as substantial rust; as he hasn't played much football the past two years. If he can be your third wideout, then rejoice at a potential league-shaking steal. If not, keep him in mind as the season progresses to see if he's worth a trade a quarter of the way through the year, especially if you're in a keeper league.
WR MIKE WILLIAMS
Nick West (Mid Round 8)
The boom on Big Mike is that he is superbly talented (176 catches and 30 TDs in two years at USC) and has outstanding size (6-foot-5 230 pounds). The bust is that he hasn't played since the January 2004 Rose Bowl.
So while he seems too have all the talent and intangibles to be successful at the NFL level, he hasn't been on the field in a very long time. But the reward outweighs the risk in a Big Mike selection and you should consider an eighth round choice on him.
The Lions had the 24th scoring offense in the league last season (296 points) and Big Mike wasn't just drafted as insurance if Rogers goes down again. He is a goal-line scoring threat and will immensely help out the Detroit offense that struggled inside the 20 last year. Williams will play the slot and work as a major match-up problem for nickel cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties. He'll catch the most touchdowns of any receiver on the roster this year.
Adrian Donofrio (Last Round//Undrafted
Mike Williams is pretty high on the team for biggest boom-bust pick. This is a bit easier of a decision though, as WR Kevin Johnson has almost assuredly nailed down the number-three wideout position for Detroit, as the Lions' brass wants to bring Williams along slowly. The fact that he hasn't played football in a substantial amount of time should concern most coaches, the fact that he didn't arrive to training camp in the best of shape should concern them more.
Will he see playing time? Yes. Will it be enough to impact most fantasy games? Probably not. Don't draft him, but keep an eye on him. He's very talented, but very raw. A definite prospect, but definitely not enough to draft him when guys like Keary Colbert will likely still be on the board.
QB JOEY HARRINGTON
Nick West (Round 12)
The four-year veteran has the most potential-laden receiving group in the NFL that features speed to get downfield for major yardage and size for several redzone touchdowns at his disposal. Plus, with a home run threat at running back setting up the playaction and a more liberal offensive coordinator in Ted Tollner, Harrington will have many opportunities to succeed.
His career touchdown to interception ratio is 48-51, but Joey improved last season, only throwing 12 interceptions to 19 touchdowns. He also threw for over 3,000 yards, had two 300-yard games and seemed to play better down the stretch, even with a weak receiving corps.
Only take Harrington as your backup QB as he will be on a short leash and has an eager Jeff Garcia breathing down his neck. If Harrington falters and is benched, be prepared to hit the waiver wire and grab Garcia, who was a three-time Pro Bowler under Mariucci.
Adrian Donofrio (Round 8)
Here he is, the main question mark for draft consideration.
Lions' QB Joey Harrington
Harrington has looked terrible in years past, but he has never had such a talented (and healthy) skill set around him. He also has only one incompletion the entire preseason, and has looked much more polished than the brash, nervous prospect in years past. That said, he's worth a bit of a reach to be your backup.
Harrington's going at around the same time proven talent Roy Williams is in most drafts, which means you may not be the only one keeping an eye out for him. Draft him a little earlier than you should and hold on to him. At worst, you can either trade him after a decent performance (he has at least one per year), or you are forced to play him during your starter's bye week, as long as it isn't week three. Just behind Kevin Jones for biggest potential on the team; and the fact that you won't have to take him high like Jones should comfort you into taking a relatively small risk.
TE MARCUS POLLARD
Nick West (Round 14)
At 33, Pollard is entering the twilight of his career, but he can still be a moderately productive starting tight end for fantasy teams this season. While teams focus on Jones and the talented trio of wideouts, Pollard should be able to split the seam and work the middle of the field for some catches.
He has caught 23 touchdown passes in the last four years in a high-powered offense that had many other mouths to feed in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Edgerrin James. So producing in a loaded offense is something Pollard is capable of doing.
The tight end position has grown so greatly over the past few seasons as more athletic and productive tight ends have come into the pro ranks, so there are probably 10-12 better options you should look at before taking Pollard. If the position has been over-drafted by round 12, take Pollard if you want a fair starting tight end. I would recommend someone other than Pollard as your starting tight end, but he will be a high-quality insurance or backup option for you by round 14.
Adrian Donofrio (Undrafted)
Here is the potential for a GREAT steal.
Arriving in Detroit could prove to be a career resurgence for Pollard. Joey Harrington loves to use his tight ends, but hasn't had a decent one since Mikhael Rick's first year. Pollard will undoubtebly see countless mismatches, and there aren't many teams that can account for big guns at every skill position. Don't draft him, he's actually going to the free agent pools in most leagues! Pick him up on the wire, sit back, and enjoy some solid production from a solid red zone target.
NICK WEST'S SLEEPER PICK: DETROIT DEFENSE | Round 15
The defense wasn't good, but wasn't bad last season. It wasn't top of the pack nor was it on the tail end. It was about right in the middle and for various reasons – injuries, lack of production, being put in awkward positions by the offense, etc.
Last season, the Lions were 20th in the league as they allowed 219.6 passing yards per game and were middle-of-the-pack (15th) allowing 117.9 rushing yards per game.
Expect an improved Detroit defense this season, but be cautious because it hasn't proved anything yet. The team has solid depth at each position on this side of the ball except safety, so it may get burnt for some over-the-top passes and a lot of yards, which isn't exactly what you want from your fantasy defense.
But what you do want is a defense that racks up sacks and interceptions; something the Lions are very capable of this year. James Hall should get double-digit sacks again (11.5 in 2004) and will have help from youngsters Kalimba Edwards (if healthy), Corey Redding and 2005 second-round pick Shaun Cody.
The linebackers are very athletic, can cover lots of ground and have certain guys who can get sacks or interceptions. Alex Lewis and 2005 sixth-rounder Jonathan Goddard are blitzing machines while James Davis and Boss Bailey can drop into coverage and might step into a few passing lanes or grab some errant throws.
Expect cornerback Dre Bly to grab no less than six interceptions and run two back this year, which will help this sleeper defense overall. And expect some help the RCB position, too; whether it is Fernando Bryant or one of the four backups that are solid nickel and adequate number twos to come up with some interceptions as the defensive line forces opposing quarterbacks to make poor decisions and throws.
Make sure you've drafted another defense in rounds 10-11 before you take this Detroit D as your backup.
NOTE: Fantasy owners should know that Lions players draft selections are based on a 12-person, 16-round league and should be taken into high consideration when conducting their draft.
Also, owners should be aware of bye weeks and draft accordingly. There is nothing more frustrating than both of your starting running backs' having week five off or your backup quarterback also taking a break during week four. The Lions' bye week is week three.
ADRIAN DONOFRIO'S SLEEPER PICK: WR KEVIN JOHNSON | Undrafted
He's the forgotten one in the crowded Detroit receiving corp, but could soon remind everyone of his presence when he lines up against a linebacker. Veteran know-how, good posession-reciever like hands and the players around him could possibly make Kevin Johnson what Detroit wanted Az-zahir Hakim to be, a great option in the slot.
Don't pick him up in the actual draft, and don't pick him up to be a stater. Holding on to him to trade him later could be a good decision, especially if Roy Williams or Charles Rogers goes down for an extended period of time.
Adrian Donofrio has been writing for LionsFans.com for five years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your comments or questions may be used in future mailbag articles.