The NFL offseason is time for every fan base — whether warranted or not — to feel optimistic about their favorite team. There are some franchises, such as the Seattle Seahawks, that have gone out of their way to suppress the positivity of their supporters, but others — whether due to sound team-building principles or not — have acquired contender-worthy talent.
We’ve seen this song and dance before with the Detroit Lions. In 2019, prior to the Matthew Stafford injury, I wrote about how much I liked the Lions moving forward. I’d like to say that the Lions won all of one game after Stafford's injury, but let’s be honest, I was just wrong. In 2020 — possibly due to betting on too many Madden sims or spending too much time indoors due to COVID — the betting markets (myself included) drove the Lions’ price to win the NFC North down from around 9/1 to 6/1 from open to close. Two days after Detroit suffered a blowout loss to the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving Day, everyone was fired.
General manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell took over, traded Stafford and started what looked like a long rebuild in the 2021 offseason. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars finished the 2021 season with a lower PFF Elo power rating worse than the -8.8 Detroit racked up. Detroit lost big to Green Bay, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Denver and Seattle en route to going under their 4.5 season win total with a 3-13-1 record.
That said, the Lions went 11-6 against the spread and, by all accounts (we’re an analytics company, so this would be similar to a citation of “personal communication” in an academic paper), played hard for Campbell all of the way to the end of a tough season. They dealt with injuries to Jared Goff that lingered most of the season while Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, D’Andre Swift, Quintez Cephus and T.J. Hockenson all missed time. Additionally, second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah got injured in the first game and missed the whole season.
Now, if those were the only players that the Lions were bringing back, or they played in the AFC, this would not be enough to warrant an article like this one. However, the Lions did some work this offseason to bolster their roster while being aided by some luck along the way.
The Jaguars, owning the first pick in the draft for the second-consecutive season, inexplicably took Georgia edge defender Travon Walker over the much-more-accomplished Aidan Hutchinson, who fell into Detroit’s lap. Hutchinson projects to be a much better player than Walker in Year 1 and in general at one of the league’s more premium positions.
Then, later in Round 1, the Minnesota Vikings — who held the 12th pick — traded with Detroit in a move that eventually landed Jameson Williams in the Motor City. While trading back is (almost always) the analytically-sound move, the Lions gave up less than a team normally does for such a move up and acquired Williams, who could end up as the best receiver in the class. Also, the D.J. Chark, Josh Paschal and Kerby Joseph additions have elevated the Lions' roster to no longer be one of the worst in all of football.
Furthermore, the Lions are playing to their roster’s strengths and weaknesses. Goff — who led the Rams to winning records four straight seasons with three playoff appearances and a Super Bowl appearance — has historically been a much worse passer when under pressure than when clean — an outlier for a data split that is usually wildly-varying each year for most passers.
|Season||Clean-Pocket Grade||Pressured-Pocket Grade|
While it’s difficult to improve a player’s performance under pressure fundamentally — results can vary — a team can make moves to ensure that the composition of clean and pressured pass plays is better for the quarterback. Last year, Goff faced pressure on 32.7% of his dropbacks while in 2020, that number was 30.7%. The Lions’ current offensive line is a plus group, as it possesses first-rounders at the three most important positions along the line of scrimmage with Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker returning.
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In addition to improving the Lions’ offense, the Lions’ situations in 2022 are projected to be much better, meaning that their rate of long-yardage situations and trailing in games should be lower than it was in the past, which should lower Goff's pressure rates. According to our Elo rating system, the Lions’ schedule is such that the average opponent — after adjusting for home field and rest — will be 0.91 points worse per game than the average team, the second-easiest slate in football behind the New York Giants. Throw in the fact that all of the Lions’ games start no later than 1 p.m. EST, and the deck is stacked in Detroit's favor in 2022.
Thus, we’re going to make the case for the Lions in the betting markets here. Here are the following ways to Back the (Honolulu) Blue:
- Lions: OVER 6 (-135 at Caesar’s – it is o6.5 (-105) at FanDuel Sportsbook)
- Lions to play the playoffs: YES (+475 on Caesar’s Sportsbook)
- Lions to win the NFC North: YES (+1000 on DraftKings Sportsbook)
These are the best offerings from legal sportsbooks that I surveyed but are not necessarily exhaustive. Make sure that you shop around, as the “YES” to make the playoffs is more than a dollar better at Caesar’s Sportsbook (+475) than it is at FanDuel (+370), and while most of the market is painted at 6.5 wins (-105 is the cheapest that I’ve found, but it’s -115 other places), “OVER 6” at -135 is a better bet if you can stomach the cost.
Here is the skinny from our season simulation as to why these are value bets:
- We give the Lions an average of 7.43 wins over 10,000 simulations — 23.4% of the time they win fewer than six games, 13.9% of the time they win exactly six games, and 62.7% of the time they win seven or more games. A -135 price requires that 57.4% of non-push events go over the win total, and in this case, that is achieved, as 62.7%/(23.4% + 62.7%) = 72.8%. If “OVER 6.5” (-105) is what you want, the break-even is 51.2%, which is surpassed by the aforementioned 62.7%, but not by as much as “OVER 6” (-135) is surpassed.
- The Lions’ likelihood to make the playoffs lands at 26.3%. The breakeven necessary to make +475 a positive expected value play is 17.4%. Thus, this is a good bet but not as good as the win total overs are.
- Lastly, we give the Lions a 10.2% chance to win the NFC North. The breakeven percentage on +1000 is 9.1%, so this bet has a positive expected value but not by nearly as much as the previous two bets. Be careful here, too, as FanDuel has Detroit at +850 to win the North, which requires a breakeven of 10.5%, which means if you bet into that price, you’re making a negative expected value play.
The Lions have been a frustrating team to root for and, until last year, a tough team to back in the betting markets. There are a number of reasons that this could change in 2022, which we’ve laid out here. In a weak NFC, there will be a team that we don't think is good that still emerges to make the seven-team tournament, and I believe that team will be the Lions.