NFL Team Preview: Lions lack depth, but two players will be fantasy factors

We’re previewing every NFL team to get you ready for the 2021 season. Our analysts will tackle pressing fantasy questions and team win totals, in order from the squad with the least amount of fantasy relevancy all the way to the most talented team. Next up, the 29th-ranked Detroit Lions.

Is D'Andre Swift more likely to finish as a top-10 back as the focal point of the offense or finish outside the top 20 because of the unit's limited upside?

Liz: Per a recent Yahoo expert mock draft, Swift was the RB18 taken. I think that’s fair (especially since I was the one who selected him). Given the Lions’ lack of field-stretching options and noting their defense (bottom-12 per FF Calculator), it’s hard to imagine game flow working in Swift’s favor. At +2000 (via Bet MGM) to win the division, the second-year back figures to lead the backfield on a team that’s rarely milking a lead. His upside as a pass-catcher (3.5 catches per game, RB12 and 7.8 YPR, RB11 in 2020) figures to keep him just inside of the top-20 FF players in the position.

Matt: I’d be blown away if he finished inside the top-10. Placing those kinds of expectations on the lead back for an offense that might legitimately score 20 to 25 touchdowns this year isn’t wise. D’Andre Swift is an intriguing talent on the Lions have done plenty to build up the offensive line but game scripts are going to be an issue with that moribund defense on the other side of the field. On that note, I doubt Swift is a workhouse, especially as a receiver. Free-agent acquisition Jamaal Williams is like catnip to coaches thanks to his reliability. In addition to his pass-blocking chops, he had 30-plus catches in both 2019 and 2020 while Aaron Jones was dominating.

Scott: Running back fantasy production is forever tied to winning situations, positive game flow. I don't know anyone who sees this as a winning Detroit team; the rebuild will take time. I think Liz had the right angle here, Swift should be drafted inside the Top 20 at the position, because while he's talented and early in his career (you need youth at running back), the surrounding pieces will cap his upside.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 18: D'Andre Swift #32 of the Detroit Lions runs for yardage against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense during the first half of a game at TIAA Bank Field on October 18, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
D'Andre Swift is a talented back, but fantasy expectations for him are capped because of the Lions' lack of offensive upside. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Is T.J. Hockenson closer to Darren Waller at TE3 or Mark Andrews at TE5? And, with that, where would you be comfortable drafting him?

Matt: Closer to Mark Andrews at TE5 and I wouldn’t be shocked if Hockenson was usurped by the Ravens tight end. Again, the lack of touchdown equity is going to be a problem for the ceiling of any player in this offense. Sure, the receiver corps is going to be bad, which makes projecting volume to Hockenson a bit more comfortable. But nothing about his career to this point screams a player worth throwing 120 targets at. Waller is lock for that type of volume and he’s an explosive downfield player. Hockenson is a safe pick but I think he’s firmly locked out of the top-three club.

Scott: Travis Kelce and Darren Waller belong in a clear tier above Hockenson, but the third-year Detroit tight end has a fair chance to outscore everyone else at the position. Hockenson is the smart bet to lead the Lions in red-zone targets (that wideout group will depress you), and while Jared Goff was a maddening player at times in his Los Angeles days, he's still around league average. He's good enough, and he should lock in on Hockenson quickly. And never forget, the third season is often the spike season at this position.

Liz: There’s a definite tier break between Waller (a converted wideout) and Hockenson. Fantasy’s TE4 overall last year, Hock figures to absorb a plethora of targets (he averaged 6.4 looks per game even with Kenny Golladay on the field for five games in 2020) again this year. But he’s not a dynamic deep threat in the same way as Waller (72.6 air yards/gm, TE2). A reasonable grab in the sixth round, Hock figures to record nearly 75 grabs and over 800 yards in 2021.

Beyond Swift and Hockenson, is there anyone worth a flier in season-long or Best Ball leagues?

Scott: If Breshad Perriman can stay healthy for once, a season around 850-900 yards and 5-7 touchdowns is possible. I'd want more upside for a seasonal pick, but he's a nice late-round target in other formats.

Liz: As the resident rookie expert/aficionado, I can’t not stan for Amon-Ra St. Brown. Younger brother to Packers wideout Equanimeous, Brown was an immediate and regular producer at USC. He’s a crisp route runner with natural hands, excellent body control, and an uncanny ability to slip past defenders after the catch. Lacking ideal size (5-foot-11 and 197 pounds) and top-end long speed, he projects to thrive as a short-to-intermediate slot option at the next level.

Given Goff’s history with slot receivers and the dearth of pass-catching options in Detroit, the rookie WR could very well lead the Lions in looks. It wouldn't surprise me to see Brown end up on a mid-to-late season list of PPR-friendly sleepers. File his name away for the double-digit weeks when FAB gets lean.

Matt: I’d rather take Amon-Ra St. Brown in the last round of my draft than Swift or Hockenson at their bloated costs. I compared St. Brown to a Cooper Kupp type of player before the NFL draft got underway. Go figure a former Rams front office member would select him in the same range of the draft where they took Kupp to compete to be Jared Goff’s new binky. With the state of Detroit’s receiver corps, St. Brown could end up inhaling 90 to 100 targets as a rookie, especially as the Lions play from behind. He doesn’t have a great ceiling, this year or as a prospect, but a solid end-of-year stat line wouldn’t shock me a bit.

Detroit Lions projected 2021 fantasy contributors

QB: Jared Goff

RB: D'Andre Swift / Jamaal Williams

WR: Breshad Perriman / Tyrell Williams / Amon-Ra St. Brown

TE: T.J. Hockenson

Detroit Lions O/U on 5 win total from BetMGM

Scott: This is a clear over ticket for me; remember, you're getting 17 games in the new NFL. Last year's Detroit team had very little going for it and still cobbled together five wins, and there should be some sort of spike for the simple fact that Matt Patricia is gone. The Lions had the worst defense in the NFL last year, but defensive efficiency has a lot of variance year-over-year; if they can jump over even a half-dozen teams, this can be a competitive squad. And look around the division; Chicago is also rebuilding, Green Bay has internal strife, Minnesota is an imperfect team. No one is foolish enough to think the Lions can steal this division, but they should junkyard dog their way to at least six wins.

Follow Liz: @LizLoza_FF

Follow Matt: @MattHarmon_BYB

Follow Scott: @scott_pianowski