NFL Picks: Without Suh, Don't Bet on Lions Reaching NFC Playoffs

Sterling Xie

Monday, August 24, 2015 3:42 PM GMT

The NFL regular season is right around the corner and this handicapper has been tackling the Futures odds in search of nice value bets. In this article we inspect the Detroit Lions in detail.

2014 Recap: Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions were a first-tier NFC team for most of 2014, finishing 11-5 and coming within a Week 17 loss of a first-round bye.  And while few would consider Detroit on the same plane as the Seattle Seahawks or Green Bay Packers entering 2015, current NFL futures odds portray the Lions as a strong second-tier contender.  Based on lines from 5Dimes, the Lions are currently +675 to reach the postseason, the sixth-best odds among NFC teams.

However, while that line doesn’t scream trouble like Arizona’s +615 odds to reach the playoffs, several indicators suggest you should stay away from the Lions.  Overall, last year’s squad was fortunate to end up with 11 wins.  Detroit’s Pythagorean win total was just 9.2 expected wins, suggesting that the Lions significantly outperformed their point differential (plus-40).  In addition, Football Outsiders uses a metric called estimated wins, which pegged the Lions as an 8.7 win team last season.  So when thinking about how Detroit has changed in the offseason, remember that it’s starting from more of a nine-win base rather than that of a typical 11-win team.

 

Offseason News Impacting the NFL Odds
And while one player certainly did not make last year’s team, Ndamukong Suh had more impact than nearly any non-quarterback in the league.  By now, you’ve heard enough about Suh’s impact on the players around him, as well as his remarkable durability for a defensive lineman (Suh played 81.4 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps last year, third among all interior linemen).  The bigger issue is that, coupled with the loss of Nick Fairley, Suh’s departure forces the Lions to reshape how they game plan on defense.

Consider Detroit’s strategic tendencies from 2014.  The Lions relied almost exclusively on a four-man rush, using that standard rush on 72.4 percent of their pass-rushing snaps last year.  Only four teams—Denver, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville—relied more heavily on that rush.  And yet, the Lions still ranked ninth in sack percentage (7.29 percent), higher than any of those other teams.  Suh’s presence allowed the Lions to have drop seven and create pressure with four rushers, the Holy Grail for any defense.

Detroit’s pass-rushing success was even more valuable because of how frequently opposing offenses were trapped in long down-and-distance situations.  Opponents had an average of 7.95 yards to go on third down against Detroit, the second-longest mark in the league behind only the Eagles.  Offenses typically floundered trying to run the ball on early downs, as the Lions allowed a league-low 3.2 yards per attempt last season.  Suh was not the sole reason offenses frequently sputtered against the Lions, but his three-down excellence made him the focal point of Detroit’s success.

 

Looking Ahead: 2015-16 Season
This year’s squad still has plenty of defensive talent, but the Lions aren’t likely to continue winning by stifling opponents’ running games and generating pressure with four-man rushes.  In fact, concerns have already emerged this preseason about Detroit’s run defense.  To compensate for Suh’s loss, the Lions need to find small improvements in other areas.  There are a few obvious areas here.  Detroit’s collection of placekickers was the worst in the league last year, as Lions kickers started the year a ghastly 5-for-15 on field goal attempts.  Football Outsiders measured Detroit’s kicking game as 19.6 points worse than league average, the worst mark since the 2003 Jacksonville Jaguars.  As a whole, the Lions’ special teams unit ranked 31st, so that represents the likeliest source of improvement.

Detroit’s running game should also be better behind Ameer Abdullah and a revamped interior offensive line.  The Lions jettisoned starters Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims after subpar years and will replace them with some combination of Manny Ramirez, second-year pro Travis Swanson and first-round pick Laken Tomlinson.  Abdullah’s speed and vision adds a much-needed turbo boost to the sputtering engine that was the Lions’ ground game in 2014.  Detroit ranked 28th in yards per attempt (3.6) last year, as Joique Bell saw a big drop in production while battling various injuries.  Bell is already battling knee and Achilles’ woes this preseason, so while he may remain the nominal starter when he returns, the Lions seem likely to give Abdullah a larger share of the carries at some point.

Ultimately, those factors can’t make up for Suh the same way that a big jump from Matthew Stafford would.  Stafford has a reputation as an all-or-nothing gunslinger, but his statistical profile changed rather dramatically under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.  In his sixth season, Stafford posted the best interception percentage of his career (2.0 percent) but saw his per-attempt yardage numbers dip to their worst rates since his rookie season.  And despite Lombardi’s sytem calling for shorter dropbacks and quicker reads, Stafford suffered a sack rate of 7.0 percent, easily the highest of his career. 

 

NFL Betting Verdict
In a nutshell, Lombardi’s system has reined in some of Stafford’s wildness, but it’s unclear if the quarterback has the decisiveness and accuracy to carry out Lombardi’s vision.  Having Calvin Johnson healthy for a full season would help, but Megatron has battled nagging injuries each of the past two seasons.  Detroit didn’t add much to their receiving arsenal, so barring huge leaps from the likes of Eric Ebron and Corey Fuller, Stafford will rely heavily on top targets Johnson and Golden Tate.

All this makes for a very dubious concoction for those making NFL picks.  There are several better plays on teams to reach the NFC Playoffs, including the St. Louis Rams (+800), Atlanta Falcons (+800) and even the Lions’ NFC North rivals, the Minnesota Vikings (+900).  Expecting the Lions to totally flop like they did in 2012 and 2013 might be too pessimistic if the veteran talent keeps the ship steady throughout the season.  But even if the Lions were the same exact team as they were last season, their win total would likely take a small dip.  Instead, Detroit is worse off after losing its best player, and could struggle to keep its head above .500.