There’s a great amount of real estate to cover with the Detroit Lions hiring a new head coach and coordinators for both sides of the ball. This offseason also will introduce massive changes at quarterback and wide receiver, in all likelihood.
Former Lions tight end Dan Campbell was hired away from the New Orleans Saints to replace Matt Patricia as the newest head coach of this long-standing franchise. Campbell brought former Saints defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn to the Motor City as the incoming defensive coordinator, and recently dismissed Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn will pilot the offense.
Campbell played in the NFL from 1999 until the 2009 season, operating mostly as a blocker. He laced up his cleats for the New York Giants (1999-2002), Dallas Cowboys (2003-05) and, as mentioned, Detroit (2006-08), appearing in only three games. Campbell signed with the Saints in ’09 but tore a knee ligament and missed the entire season.
As a coach, he entered the league’s intern program and was hired by the Miami Dolphins in 2011. The following year, Campbell was promoted to coach his former playing position. In 2015, he was named interim head coach after Joe Philbin was fired prior to the team’s fifth game. Campbell would win five of his 12 contests.
The next season, he’d be reunited in New Orleans with Sean Payton for the fourth time. Payton was his offensive coordinator in New York for a few seasons and also an assistant in Dallas. The injury-ruined 2009 season as a player found the pair together for the third time, and Payton has been Campbell’s boss since 2016 (assistant head coach/tight ends coach).
We’ve already beaten the Payton connection to death, so there’s no need to go into great detail there. Campbell was fortunate enough to learn from one of the best coaching minds the game has seen, but we’ve also witnessed plenty of examples of that not working out for a first-time head coach (ahem, Patricia).
Philbin helped orchestrate the Green Bay Packers offense under Mike McCarthy from 2007-11 and again in 2018 — the year he’d replace McCarthy. While Philbin was not a great head coach in his own right, that’s not to say Campbell didn’t learn something from him in South Beach. The offensive designs were modified West Coast offenses, or the same base system Payton has polished to a brilliant luster with the Saints.
Despite being known for his no-nonsense approach, Campbell brings a player-friendly blend of leadership to the Lions. One of the chief issues with Patricia, aside from the lack of wins, was his inability to connect with players due to the implementation of a stringent, Bill Belichickian culture, minus the street cred. As a former NFL player for a decade, the blue-collar Campbell is said to know which buttons to press and when, as well as recognizing the appropriate time to be “one of the guys.”
We could deep dive that side of things until Lions actually win a game, but the point of its inclusion is that fantasy footballers shouldn’t have to worry about Campbell alienating his players or pushing them to the point of wanting out.
Expect a tough, disciplined approach from Campbell. Look for an offense that wants to be physical for a change, and count on his players being motivated to run through a brick wall for the guy.
A former cornerback, Glenn has two coaching stops and as many job titles as a coach in his seven years on the sidelines. He was an assistant defensive backs coach for Cleveland from 2014-15 before joining the Saints as a full-fledged DBs coach until this season. He was a heck of a football player in his day, and the Saints have been one of the best secondaries in football under his leadership, but Detroit has major holes to fill.
Successful fantasy defenses almost always start and end with a pass rush. Detroit’s was second-to-last in 2020 (24 sacks) and only ninth from the bottom in 2019 (28). Merely one of the past five seasons has produced more than 35 sacks, and Detroit has managed exactly seven interceptions in three straight campaigns after generating 19 in 2017 alone.
The likelihood of Detroit turning around from being among the weakest fantasy defenses for years running to a consistently useful commodity is practically zero. The reasoning mainly comes down to a lack of personnel and also a first-time defensive coordinator in Glenn. Unless this unit drastically upgrades its personnel via free agency and the draft, it’s tough to even see them being a streaming unit more than a few times all season in 2021.
Campbell will call the shots overall, but from a fantasy football perspective, Lynn is the more important character of this ensemble. Lynn entered the coaching world back in 2000 following his retirement as a player. He worked his way up the ranks mostly as a running backs coach, his former position. Lynn was the assistant head coach of the New York Jets under Rex Ryan and followed him to Buffalo. From 2009-13, while with the Jets, Lynn’s backfield generated an NFL-best 137 rushing yards per game.
In Buffalo, Lynn was named interim offensive coordinator after Greg Roman was fired in September of 2016. The Bills would finish second in rushing attempts, first in yardage, first in rushing touchdowns, first in yards per attempt and last in passing attempts. He would parlay that success into the head job with the Chargers from 2017 until his recent firing.
The Bolts didn’t resemble the rushing powerhouse Lynn oversaw in Buffalo for that partial season, nor did the play selection skew so heavily in favor of the ground game. Keep in mind, “balanced” in today’s NFL means a team is throwing it roughly two-thirds of the time, compared to the 50.93-49.07 percent run-first ratio in ’16. The highest percentage of rushing vs. passing plays in LA during his tenure was 43.8 percent in 2018.
Now, we could get into myriad reasons why the Chargers passed so much more — and it’s not necessarily a bad thing that they did — but Lynn wasn’t the full-time playcaller during his four years. He had two legitimate offensive coordinators in Ken Whisenhunt and Shane Steichen. The Bolts shocked the league with the 2020 play of rookie quarterback phenom Justin Herbert, and the defense struggled in the past couple of years, primarily due to injuries. Nevertheless, Austin Ekeler was a top-five PPR back in 2019, and Melvin Gordon was No. 8 overall among RBs in 2018 while playing just 12 games. He was the fifth-best rusher the year before, so we have plenty of positives, even with the team not running with the same frequency.
Lynn’s success with running backs is remarkable. In four of the seasons with the Jets, his backs produced personal highs in rushing yardage. In New York, he was a frequent user of two-back sets. The resume of productive RBs under his tutelage is extensive. Jamal Lewis enjoyed a resurgence with the Cleveland Browns. Dallas RBs Marion Barber III and Julius Jones combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons. Jacksonville’s Fred Taylor’s personal-high 1,572 yards and two of the four best rushing yardage seasons in Jaguars history came while Lynn was guiding him.
No matter how good the system may be, it all comes down to having the right people to do the job on the field.
Here’s were the rubber meets the road for Detroit. Quarterback Matthew Stafford will be traded away, barring some unexpected twist to the developing plot. The Lions’ top-three wideouts — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola — are set to become unrestricted free agents in March. Running back Adrian Peterson has been an effective role player, but he, too, is a free agent. Kicker Matt Prater also is available to sign elsewhere.
Make no mistake about it, this will be among the youngest teams, at least on offense, in the NFL in 2021. In all probability, the starting quarterback will be a rookie. The youngest of those impending free agents is the 28-year-old Golladay.
All of this change will, in theory, offer increased chances for young talents, like RB D’Andre Swift, wide receiver Quintez Cephus and tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The offensive line has a couple of blue-chip pieces to build around, but otherwise, the cupboard projects to be awfully barren in Motown.
Fantasy football takeaway
There’s hardly anything to say of substance without knowing the quarterback and his primary weapons. As for the few names mentioned above, Swift is the best bet to lead this offense from a fantasy perspective. The to-be second-year back is dynamic and explosive, offering help as a dual-threat weapon. Lynn loves himself some ground game, which helps Swift’s chances, so long as there’s room to roam. The Lions may give Kerryon Johnson a real shot at pairing with Swift, but another veteran addition, like Peterson, isn’t out of the question.
Next up in terms of helping gamers would be Hockenson, especially if he has a rookie quarterback throwing his way. Tight ends tend to be BFFs for inexperienced passers. Hockenson already mostly broke out in 2020, so there’s not going to be much in the way of draft value, unless gamers perceive a QB change as being a major blow to his outlook.
Cephus is an intriguing option as a late-round flier. He brings a 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame to the mix and has enough separation ability to get deep, despite not being a burner. He’s a classic example of a wideout who plays faster than he times.
Expect the Lions to look extremely different in 2020, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing after all of this time of substandard play. We’ll provide a comprehensive update as the roster begins to take shape over the coming months.