Friday, February 03, 2012

2011: the offense in review

Part 2 of a series looking at the season that just completed and what might be expected from the season to come. Here, I focus on the talent at each position, and what I think should be done for 2012.

QB: A-

Performance: I know ... A- for a 5000-yard season? Well, remember that Stafford threw the third-most passes in NFL history. Counting stats must always be read in context. Certainly, Stafford's first full season looked much more like a #1 overall pick than what we saw in his partial seasons, in no small part, I think, due to the strength training he did in the offseason. He took a lot of hits in 2011 as well, but got up after each one of them, and ended up missing very few snaps. (Hill threw 3 passes; I don't think Stanton ever played.)

On the other hand, Stafford still got rattled after bad throws, particularly in the game at Chicago, and still tries to force the ball into coverage. With Calvin Johnson on the receiving end, sometimes that's OK, and at his best, Stafford has the ability to fit the ball into a ball-sized window. He's not always at his best, though. Sometimes it's better to take a sack (something he did better in 2011 than in 2010) or to throw it away.

Top priority: What he did last year. Maybe work more with the younger receivers (Pettigrew, Young) to develop the same kind of rapport he has with Johnson. Think of the Colts as an example. Manning had a #1 target (Harrison or Wayne or Clark), but also had other receivers he could trust to be a certain place at a certain time, and it made their offense nearly unstoppable. If Stafford can get the WRs and TEs on the same page, this could be a similar offense.

Other needs: It would help to re-sign one of the backups; both Hill and Stanton filled in well in 2010. It's probably not possible to re-sign both for reasonable money due to their experience. Hill will be 32, Stanton will be 28, so there's that, but I think Hill is more capable of running a full-throttle offense than Stanton.

RB: C

Performance: Despite the wide variance in playing time and usage, Smith, Best, and Morris all had comparable DYAR (48, 46, and 37 respectively). Smith's raw stats look pretty good until you realize that he played mostly against teams with bad run defenses (17.1% VOA, 7.2% DVOA). All three backs had higher DYAR on the receiving side (Best 65, Morris 64, Smith 64), and each back posted a receiving DVOA above 17% (Smith and Morris were above 25%).

Obviously, the absence of Leshoure was felt from Week 1, and when Best went out (again) with concussion problems, the Lions had to scramble. If Smith hadn't been available via FA, the back situation would have been grim. Morris is a change-up back, not a starter, and Keiland Williams is an adequate big back for a team with a good OL. Detroit is not that team.

Top priority: Opening training camp with two strong, healthy backs. Leshoure's status will be almost completely unknown until camp begins: there was some research done with respect to older players and Achilles injuries, but even those are nearly anecdotal, and of course it's impossible to separate an injury-recovery decline in performance from an age-related decline in performance. Leshoure is obviously younger than NFL peak age, so he could, potentially, return at good strength in 2012, although he may not be 100% until 2013.

Best, on the other hand, has played two injury-filled seasons in the NFL following a concussion-filled college career. With the richly-deserved focus on concussions in today's game, it's entirely possible that Best will never be able to play at the level the Lions hoped he would when they drafted him in 2010. (To be clear, I'm glad if this happens, because it'll mean it's not safe for him to play and thus he won't be allowed to risk his health. In the past, they'd have thrown him out there, let him rack up concussions, and cut him when he couldn't think straight any more.)

Smith is a free agent, but remember that RB is a fungible position, and he also has a history of injury. If he'll sign for a reasonable price, get him, but if not, don't be afraid to go back to the draft, or to look for a low-priced FA.

Other needs: None, really. Morris is replacement-level at best and probably not worth re-signing. Jerome Harrison obviously has more important things on his mind right now than football. The Lions can grab younger backs if they need to fill out their roster.

WR: B+

Performance: Calvin Johnson led the NFL with 586 DYAR, topping WRs with 16 TDs (tied for 14th all-time) and the NFL with 1681 receiving yards (7th all-time, but only second in Detroit history behind Herman Moore's 1681). The one thing that could probably be improved is his catch rate, 61%, but a) that's his career high (up from 57% last season), b) it's affected by the long passes thrown to him (33% last season were either Deep passes or Bombs), and c) it's also affected by the point in the season where defensive coordinators realized that single coverage was not the way to play Megatron. (You should know by now that any coach whose last name is Ryan is not given to intelligent comments. He wasn't that far off, though: Laurent Robinson was 3rd in DVOA, ahead of Megatron, and Dez Bryant was 13th ... but significantly behind Johnson. Suffice it to say that even at the time, Ryan's remark was obviously trolling. Give Titus Young a couple of seasons, and Megatron could post stats that even Ryan would appreciate.) So let's not dwell on that 61%. Megatron had a spectacular season.

Once Young became a part of the offense, he quickly developed into a threat, catching four or more passes in each of the Lions' last four games and scoring a total of 4 TDs in those games. His catch rate is low (56%), but he's young and has a high ceiling, so he should take over the #2 role from Burleson next season. Burleson, like Young, had a slightly negative DVOA (-4.5% to Young's -1.6%), but is a good fit as a secondary receiver in this offense. Expect him to become even more of a possession receiver with Young's emergence.

Top priority: Keep Johnson healthy and happy. Until another receiver emerges as an adequate complement, Johnson is what makes the receiving corps dangerous.

Other needs: Again, none, really. Johnson-Young-Burleson is a fine group to have, and all are under contract. The only free agents are ST-quality receivers, and that's another section.

TE: B

Performance: Brandon Pettigrew's counting stats were up slightly, but his performance dropped a bit; like Young and Burleson, he had a slightly negative DVOA (-2.2%). Tony Scheffler wasn't used nearly as often (43 passes to 126 toward Pettigrew), but was far more productive, with a 24.6% DVOA (8th among TEs) and 96 DYAR (vs. 30 for Pettigrew). Scheffler's ability to make spectacular catches makes you wonder why he wasn't on the field more often ... until you realize that Detroit doesn't use a lot of empty sets, and using 2 TEs means the third WR has to come off. His low catch rate (60%) was probably a factor as well.

Pettigrew has a couple of areas for improvement: YAC and penalties. For all his size, Pettigrew doesn't seem to get through tackles often, averaging less than 4 YAC, but that wasn't as big of a deal as the penalties. He led the NFL in false starts among non-linemen (there is, of course, no source for this; I just recall hearing it during a broadcast), and of course had that personal foul late in the season.)

Will Heller was mostly used as a FB and blocking TE; he fills in well enough in both roles.

Top priority: Getting the most out of Pettigrew. If he can improve his performance, his size and skills will make him a very dangerous target.

Other needs: None, really. If Young emerges as a clear #2 WR, then Linehan can do more of the 12 package (1 RB/2 TEs) that the Lions used last season, with either or both TEs flexing out and with Scheffler occasionally lining up as a WR.

OT: C-

Performance: Ah, now we get to the criticism. When the tackles were good, they were decent; when they were bad, they were awful. Backus deserves a ton of credit for surviving the Dark Times and not missing a game (take that, QB-consecutive-games-played people), but he's obviously past his prime, and he's no longer capable of doing more than slowing down elite pass rushers. Unfortunately, Jared Allen and Clay Matthews are in the same division, which means at least one-fourth of the Lions' games are against teams with elite speed rushers. Gosder Cherilus is young, but old enough that he's probably reached his potential, which isn't much better than Backus' level of play. In fact, Detroit had much worse ALY at right end (2.44) than at left end (3.67). The Lions had a solid ASR of 5.9%, but of course some of that is from Stafford getting rid of the ball quickly; who knows how much higher it would have been if Detroit had good OTs?

Top priority: Getting a good LT to protect Stafford. If there is an immediate starter at #23 (much later than Schwartz is accustomed to picking), they need to take him. It may even be worth trading up to get one. There are no FAs who are both healthy and good, so looking at, say, Jared Gaither or Demetrius Bell may not be worth the money they'd cost.

Other needs: Backus is a FA; he's only worth re-signing if he'll take backup money. He could be a good mentor for a rookie LT. A replacement for Cherilus would be nice, but it's unlikely the Lions can find two starting-caliber tackles in one offseason. Corey Hilliard is a competent backup (actually outplaying Cherilus for stretches in 2010), and as a RFA, he could be worth re-signing.

G: B-

Performance: Not bad, actually. Rob Sims was a serviceable LG, and Stephen Peterman turned out to be better than I thought he would be. Detroit's highest ALY, by far, was through right tackle, 4.22, and Peterman deserves some credit for that. Both guards seem to do an adequate job of pulling, although the line as a unit doesn't play well enough for that to work every time.

Top priority: Figuring out if Carl Nicks can fit under the cap, lol. He's available, so it would be crazy not to ask. Barring that, the Lions should probably stick with what they have. There are more urgent needs elsewhere.

Other needs: Young backups. Leonard Davis is a free agent, but he's old and seldom used. Pick up a late-round player or an undrafted FA for depth.

C: C-

Performance: Like Backus, Dominic Raiola cut his teeth during the Dark Times (although unlike Backus, he had the temerity to miss a game or two). Like Backus, he's at the point where he's no longer a starting-caliber player. If he's responsible for line calls, then he's doing that well, as there were not many plays I saw where the protection itself was an issue (it was more individual blocking), and that's not easily dismissed, but he occasionally got run over by bigger DL.

Top priority: Figuring out if Scott Wells can fit under the cap. (Yes, I am suggesting poaching OL from the Lions' top NFC opponents. Hell yes.) There are a couple of other quality centers out there, but if Detroit can't land one, they at least need to draft a young guy who can replace Raiola in the near future.

Other needs: Probably none. Whether or not they sign a FA, they need a backup. If they do sign a FA, Raiola will probably be the backup, unless they can afford the cap hit to release him. (Even then, they may not. It would not go over very well to just dump him by the wayside.) If they draft a center, obviously the rookie would be the backup.

Coming next: the defense and what little I know about special teams.

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