It’s officially ranking season, and that means it’s time to get enraged.
Normally, I don’t really take part in the outrage. I just tell the news and let y’all go crazy in the comment section. I’ve been around these parts long enough to know that as much as I like to think I know how the season will play out, no one truly does. And I—like all Lions fans—have once looked to the upcoming season with bright eyes and big hopes only to be disappointed by November. I don’t need to go through another offseason where we get outraged at [insert offending writer] in July only for them to be proven right by December.
But if there’s one thing I feel pretty confident about the 2020 Detroit Lions, it’s that their offensive weapons look pretty good. With Kenny Golladay coming off a career year and his supporting, productive cast of Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola returning, the Lions look comfortable at wide receiver. Throw in a top-10 pick in T.J. Hockenson entering his second year—which tends to be a breakout year for young tight ends—plus the second running back off the board from this spring’s draft, and it’s clear this is, at the very least, an above-average unit.
So when I clicked Bill Barnwell’s article ranking the weapons from all 32 teams, I jokingly said under my breath
“If the Lions aren’t in the top 10, I’m going to be pissed.”
The Detroit Lions were not in Barnwell’s top 10.
They weren’t in his top 20, either.
Barnwell put the Lions all the way down at 25th, or eighth-worst in the NFL.
Look, I’m not one to bag on Barnwell. I actually like him a lot. He’s very forward-thinking when it comes to analytics, and when he gives his opinion, he usually has a solid base of evidence and statistical support to his arguments. Plus, when it comes to ranking things like this, you’re going to get things wrong or overlook some players. It’s an impossible task.
But, still, this makes little sense.
Part of the problem is with Barnwell’s methods. He states right at the top that he’s going to put more emphasis on top-level talent than depth. He takes into account the top five weapons on the team—regardless of position—and hands out bonuses for players that are the top at their position. With methodology like that, it’s easy to justify putting the Packers (19th) over the Lions. They have Aaron Jones and Davante Adams, both of whom are likely top-10 at their position. But would anyone truly prefer Adams-Jones-Devin Funchess-Allen Lazard-AJ Dillon to Golladay-Jones Jr.-Hockenson-D’Andre Swift-Amendola? It would be hard for me to justify that.
Depth matters just as much as star power, and if you don’t believe me, check back in with me three months into the season.
But let’s get into Barnwell’s specific criticisms of Detroit’s weapons.
“They’ll also be hoping for a return to form from Marvin Jones, who has gone from averaging 18 yards per catch in 2017 all the way down to 12.6 last season,” Barnwell writes.
This seems like a bit of statistical cherry picking. Jones caught 62 passes last year, more than any other season with the Lions despite only playing in 13 games. His drop in yards per reception could simply be a difference in use. The Lions had a different coordinator in 2019 and his average depth of target (aDOT) went from 14.6 in 2018 to 13.1 in 2019. To frame that as a potential sign of decline is misleading.
Don’t get me wrong, at 30 years old, Jones Jr. probably doesn’t have a ton of great years left, but the man put up nine touchdowns last year, which was just two fewer than the league leader. He can still ball.
Elsewhere, he admits it’s too early to be concerned about Hockenson’s mild rookie year, yet calls it “a lost season,” which I honestly don’t even know what that means. Hockenson got experience in the NFL, was likely humbled a bit, and will have to grow in Year 2 just like almost every other tight end in NFL history.
He shrugs off the Swift draft pick, framing it as a sign Kerryon Johnson is done rather than adding another weapon to the backfield. And while I’m not extremely high on Amendola, he probably deserved a passing mention here, seeing as he nearly cracked the top 50 in receiving yards last year (678, 53rd).
Injuries were also a common theme in his criticism for the Lions. Meanwhile, let’s look around the rest of the article.
Giants (Ranked 7):
“If everyone could just get on the field at one time, the Giants would be something to stress out about for opposing defenses.”
Eagles (Ranked 10):
Jackson missed most of 2019 with a core injury, and his future with the team is uncertain after he posted anti-Semitic messages on social media. Jeffery suffered a Lisfranc injury in December, and he has no timetable for return. Arcega-Whiteside was a disaster as a rookie, averaging just 0.58 yards per route run while dealing with injuries and making mental mistakes. Goodwin has missed 12 games over the past two season with various injuries and personal absences.
For whatever reason, all of these injury concerns were just shrugged off.
I will admit my optimism on the Lions’ weapons has a decent amount of faith tied to it. There’s no guarantee that Hockenson makes that Year 2 jump, and we’ve yet to even see Swift put on a Lions uniform. But the Lions’ receiving corps doesn’t require much faith to see its value. Only one other team in the NFL had three receivers put up at least 678 yards last season (Falcons). To put the likes of that beneath teams like New England (Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry and… Devin Asiasi?) and Minnesota (Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr.) seems overly dismissive.
But maybe I’m just falling into the offseason optimism trap again.