Back in April, Football Outsiders released their 2017 win-loss projections for all 32 teams (ESPN Insider required). They had the Detroit Lions finishing second in the NFC North, but only with a record of 7-9. Their main reasoning for the predicted slide was that Detroit was unlikely to repeat their luck in close games. “With normal luck and without so many late comebacks, the 2017 Lions are probably going to have fewer wins,” Football Outsiders claimed.
Now that the 2017 NFL Draft is in the books, Football Outsiders is a tad more optimistic about the Lions. On Monday, Aaron Schatz released Football Outsiders’ latest win projections (Insider required) and the Lions are on the move up. Detroit’s win projection has moved from 7.4 mean wins to 7.8. That move may not seem all that significant, but now Detroit is projected to go 8-8 in the upcoming season. Additionally, the Lions climbed two spots in the NFC, moving from 10th in last month’s predictions to eighth.
Despite the small but significant raise, Football Outsiders is still singing the same tune regarding Detroit’s regression to the mean in close games:
Close wins put the Lions into the playoffs last year despite ranking just 27th in DVOA. They aren't going to rank last in our defensive ratings again, especially after drafting defensive talent such as Jarrad Davis and Teez Tabor, but with less luck they'll end up with fewer wins despite better underlying statistics.
The regression to the mean theory is nothing new for the Lions this offseason. Detroit has been ranked as low as 27th in some offseason power rankings. Even Las Vegas has the Lions as one of the least likely teams to win the Super Bowl despite last year’s playoff appearance.
However, these Football Outsider projections vary from other predictions in one very big way: it’s clear their advanced statistics are happy with Detroit’s draft. While other sites have proclaimed Detroit had one of the worst drafts in the league, Football Outsiders seems to be claiming the opposite.
The Lions focused heavily on the defense this offseason, using six of their nine draft picks on that side of the ball, including their first two picks and five of their first seven. For a team that ranked last in defensive DVOA (by a large margin), that alone is enough to be a little more optimistic about the team in 2017.