Even Without Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford Should Be a Great Fantasy Football Asset This Year

After a white-hot end to last season, 2016 could be a breakout year for Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

I think Charles Dickens, if he was alive today, would have been a Detroit Lions fan. The passage above is part of the opening paragraph of his famous A Tale of Two Cities, and it describes the glory of freedom and simultaneous chaos in the wake of the French Revolution. A comparison to the conditions of the city of Detroit itself comes to mind, as well, but certainly this description -- if nothing else -- fits with the Motor City’s favorite football team in the wake of the 2015 season.

This was an offense that had enormous ups and downs between the first and second halves, and does feel like a “tale of two teams”. Still, I think the progress that the Lions -- and quarterback Matthew Stafford himself -- made in the second half is a good indicator for fantasy success in 2016.

Here’s why.

The Track of a Storm

Prior to the Lions’ Week 9 bye last year, they were an offense in shambles. The wide receiving corps was as ugly as the guillotine, the running backs would have lost footraces to even the laziest nobles of Louis XIV’s court, and Stafford himself was slinging more wildly than Robespierre on a loyalist witch hunt.

Net Expected Points (NEP) can help us to see just how bad the Lions’ situation was in the early goings of the 2015 season. NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Stafford completes a pass for five-yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the Lions’ production in schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points per play from Weeks 1 to 9, as well as their ranks in each of these categories.

Weeks Adj. NEP per Play Adj. Passing NEP per Drop Back Adj. Rush NEP per Rush
1-9 0.01 (24th) 0.05 (22nd) -0.04 (23rd)

The Lions ranked in the bottom third of the league in every NEP analytic, and were a wreck of a team. No one exemplified this “worst of times” feeling more than its quarterback Matthew Stafford. Through the first eight games of the season, Stafford had tossed 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, as well as a meager 6.97 yards per attempt despite a solid 65.4 percent completion rate.

With Calvin Johnson hobbled and Golden Tate, Theo Riddick, and Eric Ebron an afterthought in Stafford’s mind, the team went a hideous 1-7 in the first half of the season. All hope looked lost for the 2015 Lions.

Recalled to Life

Then, all of a sudden, everything changed. A new era of enlightenment emerged, ushered in by the Lions’ new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. From Week 10 onward, the offense was a juggernaut, despite Johnson continuing to deal with injury and ineffectiveness. The Lions rolled out six wins in eight games, and Stafford completely rebounded.

The table below shows Stafford’s production in both traditional statistics and NEP analytics, compared between Weeks 1-9 and Weeks 10-17.

Weeks Adj. Passing NEP per Drop BackSuccess Rate Comp% YPA TD% INT%
1-9 -0.03 47.04% 65.44% 6.97 4.35% 3.68%
10-17 0.23 55.24% 69.97% 7.44 6.48% 0.68%

In every single category, Stafford’s value surged, most notably in his nearly doubling his touchdown rate and shredding his interception rate. He tossed 19 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions in the second half of the year, and added a quarter of a point of Passing NEP per drop back more in the second half than he did before. Stafford went from fantasy heretic to revolutionary nearly overnight.

Cooter’s presence at the helm of this offense obviously matches up with the shift. Stafford himself credited Cooter with unlocking some of his own potential, saying, “If you really like what you’re running, you can be really successful."

That sounds nice, but we work in data, not niceties; what actually changed to make this happen?

If we look at Stafford’s usage, not a ton changed for him. His drop backs stayed fairly consistent (321 in the first half, 315 in the second), but a noticeable difference is that his Average Depth of Target (aDOT), per Pro Football Focus, plummeted from 7.1 yards to 6.6 yards per target. What this means is that Stafford, on average, began attempting fewer deep bombs and attempted more short passes. It’s entirely possible that by shifting Stafford from an air raid approach to a quick-hitting, short-pass game, the Lions drastically increased his efficiency.

If this is true, then it would show in the yards per reception (YPR) for his receiving corps, and sure enough, every wide receiver and tight end -- excepting Calvin Johnson and Tim Wright -- saw their yards per reception averages tumble anywhere from 0.3 to 2.5 YPR. It makes sense to think that higher percentage passes (which also helped slash the receivers’ drop rates) would allow for more passing efficiency.

In addition, Detroit rushed 37 more times with running backs in the second half of the season than the first. This greater emphasis on the run game possibly led to more balance in the offense and forced defenses to take notice of the ground attack too.

In the end, that’s what the Lions may have sought all along: balance between opposing forces. Perhaps that is what led them back from turmoil.

The Golden Thread

So, what does this mean for 2016?

Many people have great concerns about Stafford’s viability without Calvin Johnson, but I’m not so sure his absence won’t be a good thing for the Lions’ passing game. In his last eight games, Johnson still saw 68 targets, but had an ugly 58.82 percent catch rate with three drops. Had Stafford spread those looks around, it’s possible that he would have been even more productive.

As for whether or not Golden Tate can tow the line as the number-one receiver, I think we’ll see the Lions continue using him like they did late last year: close to the line of scrimmage (7.6 aDOT in first half, 3.8 aDOT in second half) and allow him to make plays after the catch (6.6 yards after the catch). He and Theo Riddick will both be used as short receivers with good volume, while Marvin Jones and T.J. Jones give them the space to work underneath.

This is becoming a versatile and dangerous offense, and its success late in 2015 was no fluke: it was the thawing of a horrible winter for the Lions and Matthew Stafford. Even for those people who still have concerns about the weak strength of schedule the Lions faced in the second half, they nonetheless tied for eighth in our schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play metric; if the schedule was full of complete cupcake opponents, they would have been much lower. Around this time last year, even I wasn't sure that Stafford was a fantasy asset, but the sustainability of the offensive revolution in Detroit makes a compelling argument for him in 2016, and at the very least, Megatron's absence won't slow him.