Boy, didn't those Lions show some promise in 2006? Roy Williams took a huge leap forward to become a top-10 wide receiver, Mike Furrey came out of nowhere to post his first 1,000-yard season, Cory Redding fulfilled the promise of his first two years with an eight-sack season, Jon Kitna and Mike Martz teamed to finally focus an explosive aerial attack and ... the team won three games.
The team won three games, people. In a bad division. In a bad conference. That was two games worse than 2005, three games worse than 2004. Yes, Matt Millen's charges are back to the glory days of 2002, 3-13 once again, drafting wide receivers by the bushel. (Fun Matt Millen joke you can use at parties: "Did you hear how excited Millen was when he finished his latest jigsaw puzzle? It took him only six months, and the box said 'Two-to-Four Years.'") Of course, Kitna has publicly stated that the team will win 10 games in 2007, so what are we worrying about?
Running back Kevin Jones tore up his foot last season, and almost certainly won't be ready to go at the beginning of 2007, and neither will second-year man Brian Calhoun, so Tatum Bell will be the lead back, with assists from T.J. Duckett, Shawn Bryson and maybe Aveion Cason. Yuck. Rookie wideout (surprise!) Calvin Johnson could step in and start alongside Williams right away. Jeff Backus and George Foster are okay tackles (though when Denver gets rid of a tackle, as they did with Foster, I wonder), and I like the acquisition of Edwin Mulitalo at guard if he's healthy, but otherwise the interior of this line is shaky. And the defensive secondary, minus Dre' Bly and Terrence Holt, could be a disaster.
Key Backups/Position Battles
The Lions drafted local product Drew Stanton, a big-armed, semi-successful Michigan State product who won't start any time soon. In fact, Stanton is likely to sit behind Dan Orlovsky on the Lions' depth chart, and considering Kitna took every snap for the Lions last year, that means the rookie who some (not me) consider the future of the franchise won't see the field unless something really bad happens in 2007. Orlovsky enters his third season and has 17 career regular-season pass attempts.
It's really pretty messy in the Detroit backfield. Jones suffered the Lisfranc fracture that in the past has cost Eddie George and Duce Staley copious amounts of playing time, and requires surgeons to literally fillet the foot in order to repair it. The Lions have reported that Jones has begun cutting on the foot lately (no pun intended, presumably), but that he won't be ready for the beginning of camp. Jones definitely has the most fantasy potential of anyone in this crowded backfield, but I wouldn't count on him except as a later-round gamble. Calhoun tore an ACL last season, and there's been rampant speculation that he could wind up on injured reserve. Duckett is what he is: a bruising back who'll leach just enough goal-line carries to annoy you, but not enough to make him fantasy-viable. Plus, he was terrible on the goal line for the Redskins last year. As for Bell? Good luck with him. The Lions talked about trading the guy about a week after they got him from Denver, which tells you how much they like him. He's fast but he's a fumbler, and sure, Martz made Marshall Faulk a star, but he also doesn't like average running backs. Bell is one of those.
One-for-three ain't bad, right Mr. Millen? Charles Rogers and Mike Williams are gone, but Roy Williams has definitely panned out. The battle to play opposite Williams will involve Johnson and Furrey, but Martz likes three-receiver sets enough that both guys should be useful on fantasy teams. McDonald looks like the fourth guy, unless Johnson's learning curve is steeper than expected. If that happens, McDonald can step right in because Martz is very familiar with him from their days in St. Louis.
The Lions were 27th in the NFL targeting tight ends in the red zone. So Campbell is a questionable fantasy bet at best, and his backup, Darnell Sanders (who hasn't played in an NFL game since 2003) is a non-factor.
What to Look for in 2007
I'm sorry, I know a lot of people out there view Kitna as a top-10 fantasy quarterback this year, but I'm not one of them. Yes, he'll get ample opportunity (he chucked it almost 600 times last year, second-most in the league behind Brett Favre), yes he finished fourth in passing yards (4,208) and threw for 21 scores. But he also threw 22 picks and lost an incredible nine fumbles. Martz almost never max-protects; he'll send a jillion guys on routes and cross his fingers that his quarterback can think fast enough to throw before getting hammered. Considering Kitna was sacked a league-high 63 times last year (the next-closest victim was nailed 49 times), let's go out on a limb and assume he may just not be that quick a thinker. He had three games of three-or-more passing touchdowns, and I absolutely expect him to do that again in '07. But he also had three games of three-or-more interceptions (and three additional games when he threw two picks), and that'll happen again, too. The potential reward with Kitna is huge, but I just don't think risk is worth it. If you can stomach starting him every week, you're a better person than I.
At running back, I've already hinted at the problem: It's likely that no single guy will do enough work to be a real fantasy threat. If Jones begins the year hobbled, Bell will carry it between the 20s and Duckett will be the red zone guy. Once Jones is back, Duckett could still be the short guy. At this point I'd probably have to rate Bell a few spots ahead of Jones on my cheat sheet, but that could change in training camp. Jones is the only guy I'd consider starting on my fantasy team, and only if he's shockingly healthy.
Receiver is the position at which the Lions have obvious value. Roy Williams deserves to be a top-10 wideout, and is knocking on the top five. He amassed 1,310 yards receiving in 2006 to go with seven scores. Calvin Johnson's presence potentially takes away a few touchdowns, or at least limits the possibility that Williams will suddenly vault into 14-touchdown territory, but make no mistake: Williams is still the man to whom the Lions will throw. He was eighth in the NFL in targets last year, and that number isn't going down. Furrey and Johnson will both be top-30 wideouts as well, because this is a poor defense and a turnover-prone quarterback playing for Mike Martz: a recipe for 40 to 50 passes per game. Furrey caught an NFC-high 98 balls in 2006, and although that number will go down, he's still the main possession receiver. The big variable is Johnson. Is he Randy Moss? Can he post a 17-touchdown season, despite the presence of two very successful veterans at his position, which is what Moss did his rookie year with Cris Carter and Jake Reed around. Probably not: Only six rookie receivers have topped 1,000 yards in the past decade. Still, he's a freak with great hands and he's a smart kid. He'll start for a ton of fantasy teams right away.
At tight end, Campbell did catch four scores in 2006, but Martz has never been any kind of advocate for receiving tight ends, and you shouldn't expect that to change. He's a bye-week fill-in, and nothing more.
Perhaps the best news for Detroit's skill players is that the team's secondary has the potential to be "From Justin to Kelly" bad. Fernando Bryant (five career interceptions in eight seasons, zero last year) should be someone's nickel back, but he'll presumably start at one corner spot. Stanley Wilson, a third-year former third-rounder, has zero career picks, and he looks set to start on the other side. Travis Fisher signed a one-year deal after missing 17 games the past two years, and lined up at nickel during minicamp. Strong safety Kenoy Kennedy is an intriguing IDP because he's a huge hitter, but he can't cover receivers. Daniel Bullocks will be the free safety, but he's a Kennedy clone: a big hitter who struggles in coverage. The presence of Shaun Rogers, Cory Redding and Ernie Sims notwithstanding, there will be a lot of receivers running free against this defense. They may register more than 30 sacks as a team this year (that was good for 26th in the league in 2006), but they're still getting waxed by good offenses. Avoid them.
The receivers are where it's at. They're a great way to get a piece of a Mike Martz offense without being subject to the vagaries of the turnover-prone Kitna. Williams is nestled nicely into the top 10 and as such should be a second- or third-round pick, depending on your league. Johnson and Furrey are definite starters in three-receiver leagues, and each could squeeze into starting roles in shallower leagues if the other falters a bit. I'm staying away from all the running backs except Kevin Jones, and I'll only pick him late if I get good medical news out of camp. The defense is to be avoided, although those in IDP leagues will find some solid players closer to the line of scrimmage. All in all, this is another losing team for Matt Millen, the seventh in his seven years at the helm. I'll charitably put them at 6-10.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.