2021 Coach Carousel: Detroit Lions


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2021 Coach Carousel: Detroit Lions

By now, you’ve all seen the press conference. New Lions head coach Dan Campbell put on a triumphant “FOOTBAW GUY” performance that would fit on a sketch show, but we know he’s entirely serious. He even mixed in a couple curse words for effect.

Hell, you could even call his introduction scary at points. Just close your eyes and listen to the similarities with Buffalo Bill (not the Josh Allen kind). I just hope if a player winds up in Campbell’s doghouse, it’s not located in a gigantic hole.

From my perspective, it looks like the Lions are going for a full-scale culture change from the disastrous Matt Patricia era. I’m always skeptical of guys who turn the tough guy act up to 11, but I’ll admit there’s a strange authenticity to Campbell’s rhetoric that Patricia failed to get across (as many Bill Belichick disciples have struggled with).

But it’s not just a culture change that will be taking place in Detroit — it’s organizational upheaval. With new GM Brad Holmes and Campbell on the bridge of a ship that is no longer expected to have Matthew Stafford at the helm for the first time in a dozen years, the 2021 Lions are heated into uncharted waters.

About Campbell

Campbell has been in the NFL in some capacity every year since 1999, when he was a third-round pick out of Texas A&M, playing tight end for the New York Giants. He spent four seasons there, then three each with Dallas and Detroit, before wrapping up his career playing for Sean Payton with the Saints in 2009.

As a fantasy asset, Campbell was little more than a touchdown vulture — he played 11 seasons in the NFL and caught just 91 passes, but he turned 11 of them into TDs. Mostly, he was revered for his blocking, and that attitude certainly showed up in his introductory press conference.

Following his playing career, Campbell immediately transitioned into coaching, joining fellow FOOTBAW GUY Tony Sparano’s staff with the Dolphins as a coaching intern in 2010. Campbell was promoted to tight ends coach in 2011, and though Sparano was fired midway through that campaign, new coach Joe Philbin kept Campbell on staff through the 2015 season … when Campbell himself succeeded the fired Philbin as interim head coach. Philbin opened that season 1-3, and Campbell got the woeful Dolphins to play respectable ball down the stretch with a 5-7 record.

Campbell has spent the last five seasons as assistant head coach and tight ends coach under Payton in New Orleans, where he continued to learn from one of the brightest offensive minds in football, biding his time.

Now, one thing that doesn’t necessarily sync up with the tendency to pigeonhole Campbell as a meat-heady rah-rah type is the fact that GM Holmes was so involved with his hiring. Holmes, erstwhile of the Rams, comes from an extremely collaborative and forward-thinking front office that is consistently on the same page with its coaching staff. The Rams meld analytics and a traditional scouting approach organically, while Campbell comes from New Orleans, where Payton has consistently evolved with the times in his 15 years as head coach.

It remains to be seen if Campbell plays into the memes that were bound to emerge from his introduction, but there’s quite a bit more than meets the eye to him.

Campbell’s Staff

If Campbell’s histrionics and playing experience don’t command the respect of his players, he’s anticipating his staff will. From top to bottom, Campbell’s coaching staff is loaded with playing experience and diversity.

Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn played in the league for eight seasons as a running back and then immediately jumped into coaching in the NFL, where he’s been for 21 seasons, the last four as head coach of the Chargers. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn played at Campbell’s alma mater, Texas A&M, was a first-round pick of the Jets at cornerback in 1994, played in the NFL for 15 seasons, made three All-Pro teams, and has spent the last five years with the Saints as defensive backs coach — on the same staff as Campbell. New assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley played 10 seasons as a running back with the Eagles and Steelers, spent the last 10 seasons coaching with the Eagles, and had multiple players openly lobbying for him to be offered the Eagles’ vacant head-coaching job that eventually went to Nick Sirianni.

Lynn, Glenn, and Staley all had significant interest elsewhere, so Campbell obviously is bringing in a well-respected staff. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley opted to stay in Detroit despite also drawing interest with other clubs, a positive for continuity in the trenches (though the Lions ranked 19th in run blocking and 21st in pass protection per FootballOutsiders’ metrics).

The one area that stands out for the negative, though, is a lack of playcalling experience. I tend to view “playcalling experience” as overrated when evaluating a coach’s credentials, but it’d be nice for someone on this staff on some level to have an idea in that department. Campbell has no discernible experience in that department, and while Lynn was the head coach with the Chargers the last four seasons, he typically delegated playcalling duties to his offensive coordinators (Ken Whisenhunt, Shane Steichen). Perhaps this will be a collaborative effort like I expect the front office to be, but I’m just fascinated to see this structure.

Fantasy Impact

Quite frankly, it’s nearly impossible to assess what the Lions will look like from a fantasy perspective in 2021. They’re almost certainly going to have a new quarterback. Their top three WRs — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola — are all free agents. The best receivers on this team as it stands now are TE TJ Hockenson, RB D’Andre Swift, and WR Quintez Cephus.

Hockenson stands out because Campbell, obviously, was a former tight end. But Swift is the guy most fantasy players will be flocking to given the build of this team, and that fact that two coaches in power — Lynn and Staley — are former running backs and have decades of experience coaching running backs.

Believe it or not, Lynn’s Chargers teams the last four seasons finished with a higher passing yardage rank (1st, 10th, 6th, 6th) than rushing yardage rank (24th, 15th, 28th, 18th) in each of his four seasons as Chargers head coach. His first three seasons featured a future Hall-of-Fame QB in Philip Rivers, of course, but even with a rookie QB in Justin Herbert in 2020, the Charges had one of the NFL’s most explosive passing offenses.

The differences are even more stark in FootballOutsiders DVOA — the Chargers ranked 31st in rush DVOA in 2020, compared to 7th in passing. Those rankings were 22nd and 9th in 2019, 4th and 2nd (!) in 2018, and 21st and 2nd in 2017. Again, the QB had a lot to do with that, but Lynn’s Charger teams were never as run-heavy as you might have presumed (and that’s the major reason I missed on Keenan Allen this season). However, Lynn also had a running back finish in the top 10 at his position in targets in three of his four seasons as head coach. In the year in which one didn’t — 2018 — both Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler ranked in the top 20 of that department.

A lot of this projection is a fool’s errand right now, of course, given we don’t even know who the trigger man in this offense will be, nor can we be certain right now who will even call plays (my assumption is Lynn). The veteran QB market is expected to be robust, while the Lions could be in prime position to select a quarterback with the 7th pick in the NFL Draft. But even if the Lions get the right guy at QB, they could have an entirely new WR corps. And that doesn’t even bring us to the defense, which was the NFL’s worst in yards per game and in DVOA.

The Lions have a talent issue on both sides of the football, which is why the entire regime here is new. Fortunately, that bodes well for Swift and Hockenson to be busy in Campbell’s first year.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.