Commentary

After Calvin Johnson, who's next?

Updated: August 19, 2011, 11:03 AM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Whether or not you agree with analyst Cris Carter's assessment that Calvin Johnson is not one of the five best wide receivers playing today, when it comes to fantasy value, there's no denying that the man called Megatron is indeed an elite talent.

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Since 2007, Johnson is one of only nine wide receivers who have scored more than 600 fantasy points, and after his second career 1,100-plus-yard, 12-touchdown season, he ranks sixth among active wideouts in that time. Considering that he had to go through three different starting quarterbacks in 2010 -- Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton -- it's an amazing testament to his talents that Johnson tied for the fifth-highest score at his position for the season.

But what fantasy value is there in the Motor City once the alpha cat has been drafted? Who should be the second Detroit Lions player off the board?

Stafford seems to be a popular answer to this question. If he plays the entire 16-game schedule, then 3,500 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and a top-10 ranking amongst his quarterback peers is not that far-fetched an eventuality. However, let's face it -- as a pro, a paragon of health he has not been.

In his rookie campaign, he went on injured reserve after injuring his non-throwing shoulder, and subsequently had minor surgery on his right knee. Last season, Stafford hurt his throwing shoulder in Week 1, causing him to miss the team's next five games.

After an impressive 37-25 victory over the Washington Redskins, in which Stafford threw three touchdown passes to (who else?) Johnson, he took the field in Week 8 and proceeded to reinjure that right shoulder against the New York Jets. Stafford missed the rest of the season.

While there's plenty of reason to be optimistic, there's just as much reason, if not more, to see this glass as half-empty.

So, what about turning to the ground game, and Jahvid Best? The knock on Best was his "turf toe" problem, which was a large reason that he didn't find the end zone on the ground from Week 3 on. Additionally, it was feared that rookie Mikel Leshoure was going to play the part of touchdown vulture this season, limiting any bounce-back potential for Best, but Leshoure was lost for the year to a torn Achilles tendon.

As a result, Maurice Morris gets a reprieve and could once again spell Best, but then we're left with the same ground game that couldn't finish higher than 23rd overall in the NFL in 2010. The Lions did sign Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell to provide competition for Morris, but how that plays out remains to be seen. Which turns it right back around to the health of Stafford, because if the aerial assault gets grounded, the duo of Best and Morris has already shown its shortcomings when asked to handle matters on its own.

So, then, is there a Lions player other than Johnson who should be drafted with a sense of enthusiasm rather than resignation? Perhaps not one player, but how about 11 of them, all rolled up into one? I'm talking, of course, about Detroit's defense/special teams, which I think has a very realistic chance of being the second-highest scoring "player" for the Lions this season.

Even though the Lions finished just 6-10, the defense always seemed to be able to keep the team in games; six losses were by five points or less. They were sixth in the league in sacks with 44, only four behind the league-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not only that, but in terms of forcing turnovers, a hugely underrated point-generator in fantasy, Detroit did surprisingly well. The Lions' 14 picks were just three interceptions short of a tie for 11th, and they were fourth in fumble recoveries with 15. Considering they recovered less than half of their opponents' fumbles last season, there's clearly plenty of room for even more fantasy points to be scored here.

Ndamukong Suh
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh leads a Lions defense that many are expecting big things from in 2011.

With the lockout delaying the free-agent signing timetable, many teams with such a promising foundation might have been tempted to take their chances with such an up-and-coming bunch, but the Lions went on the initiative. Not only did they re-sign five of their own free agents (Cliff Avril, Bobby Carpenter, Chris Houston, Brandon McDonald and John Wendling), but they got plenty of new weapons for defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to play with.

Former Cleveland Browns cornerback Eric Wright will help to shore up a secondary that was actually better than many people think last season. Detroit ranked 16th overall against the pass, but finished eighth in terms of allowing passing plays of more than 20 yards. The middle of the field was the real problem and to remedy that, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, the league's second-leading tackler in 2010, was brought over from Tennessee, along with Justin Durant from Jacksonville.

There's plenty of reason for optimism here and we haven't even mentioned returning defensive linemen Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh, or first-round draft pick Nick Fairley from Auburn. Fairley has a foot injury and may not play at all in the preseason, and certainly the lack of reps means he probably doesn't start once the games count -- but he's just one piece of the puzzle. Taking a defense spreads the risk around so that, unlike the gamble you take when drafting Stafford, if one player on the defense gets hurt, you don't have to automatically start scouring the waiver wire for a replacement.

We all know preseason games don't mean too much, but it was incredibly encouraging to see the Lions' defense come out all fired up against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals. The D forced three turnovers and held the Bengals to just 205 total yards in a 34-3 blowout. Now, the 2011 schedule isn't going to be a cakewalk where the Lions get to square off with nothing but unproven rookies under center, but nevertheless, it does seem to be a favorable one.

In the first 10 games of the season, they face only one team that finished 2010 in the top 12 in terms of total offense (Dallas in Week 4) and get five games against teams that finished in the bottom 10 (Minnesota, Carolina, San Francisco and Chicago twice). By the time Week 12 rolls around and the schedule gets truly difficult -- games with New Orleans, San Diego and two battles with Green Bay -- this unit will have had ample opportunity to cohere into a standout defensive force.

I'm not ready to draft the Lions ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens of the world just yet. But in 2010, the Lions' D had six games of double-digit fantasy output and finished with only seven fewer points than Jahvid Best. In the offseason, they improved their starting personnel and built up a ton of depth. Already, it looks like these guys have a fire in their collective eyes.

There's no disputing that Calvin Johnson is the best fantasy option on this team, but after he's gone, when you weigh all the pros and cons, the safest next-best thing is not a quarterback, not a running back, and not anybody else in the offensive huddle at all.

It's Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Silver and Blue crew. That's who.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.

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