Just about everywhere you look, expectations for the Detroit Lions in 2021 are as low as you can find. Many Vegas outlets have them as the team most likely to be picking first overall in 2022. They aren’t favored in a single game this year. Look at any set of way-too-early power rankings, and the Lions are sure to be in the bottom three. Hell, even Lions fans know to lower expectations in Year 1 of the Dan Campbell era, as well over half of the recently-polled fanbase is expecting six wins or fewer.
But one national outlet has a slightly more optimistic view of the 2021 Lions and even mentioned the small possibility of... playoffs.
Now, before we go any further, we have to be clear, the outlet here is Football Outsiders, and they still listed the Lions as the seventh-worst team in football. However, that’s significantly better than most national sites are giving the Lions credit for, and they do list some reasons for optimism in their latest ESPN post where they listed their top 10 2022 NFL Draft order projections (subscription required).
Part of their reasoning for relative optimism is their belief that the drop-off from Matthew Stafford to Jared Goff may not be as big as many believe it will be.
“ESPN’s QBR, which attempts to separate a quarterback’s performance from his teammates’, had a gap of about 10 points last year, or the difference between ranking 15th (Stafford) and 23rd (Goff),” Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz wrote. “That’s not too big, and it was only two years ago that Goff had a higher QBR than Stafford.”
Overall, Football Outsiders’ projection model is only predicting a minor regression on the offensive side of the ball, down to an average unit. They still predict the defense to be awful, but with so much room for improvement from last year, it’s possible the year-to-year randomness of defensive efficiency could play in the Lions’ favor as Schatz notes in his “best-case scenario” section:
“Best-case scenario: It turns out that Sean McVay wasn’t personally responsible for anything Goff did well over the past couple of years, and he can play quarterback outside the Rams’ system. The defense demonstrates how things are less stable on that side of the ball by improving dramatically to league average or even better. Put that all together and the Lions could challenge for a wild card, although it will be tough against their schedule.”
That all being said, it’s clear Schatz believes this team is still far from truly competing for any postseason accolades. He mentions that he still expects the defense to be bad this year, and the Lions’ schedule ranks third toughest by Football Outsiders’ metrics. And when a team’s absolute best-case scenario is to “challenge for a wild card,” you know the bar is set low.
Still, it’s nice to hear at least one outlet not immediately peg this team as a lock for a top-three pick next year. Though, it’s at least worth mentioning that Football Outsiders has been weirdly optimistic about the Lions over the past two years.