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December 27, 2015: Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) looks downfield for Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) during the game on Sunday afternoon, Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire)
Detroit Lions

Lions success depends on Stafford’s throwing arm

Steven King/Icon Sportswire

Matthew Stafford has proven throughout his career that his arm rarely gets tired.

He’s going to put it to the test again this season.

Stafford has averaged 39.7 passes per game since coming to the NFL in 2009 - more than any other quarterback in league history. Part of that is because of the era he plays in - the top five are all active players and No. 6 is Peyton Manning - but he’s also put some distance between himself and his pursuers.

Andrew Luck is second at 38.3 attempts per game, and it drops off quickly after that. Drew Brees (37.3), Sam Bradford (36.4) and Matt Ryan (36.0) fill out the top five. Of quarterbacks who finished their careers before 2000, Dan Marino’s 34.5 is well ahead of Jim Everett’s 31.2.

Of course, a lot of Stafford’s throws have gone to Calvin Johnson, who has turned in his cleats for dancing shoes, but his workload isn’t likely to decline. The 2016 Detroit Lions are going to, once again, rely on the pass more than almost any team in the NFL.

Detroit finished last in the league in rushing last season, and general manager Bob Quinn didn’t make any major changes to the running game in free agency or the draft. Ameer Abdullah, who led the team with 597 yards in a fumble-prone rookie season, will be the number-one back again this year. However, he’s only seen limited action in the preseason as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

Last year’s No. 2, Joique Bell, is gone, so the Lions will need more rushing yards from receiving specialist Theo Riddick. He caught 80 passes last season, many in the two-minute offense, but only carried the ball 43 times for 133 yards. He’s evasive in the open field but struggles to hit holes at speed.

The only runner added in the draft, Washington’s Dwayne Washington, was picked in the seventh round and has shown big-play ability in the preseason. However, he’s expected to work more as a returner this season than as a runner.

28 APR 2016: Taylor Decker chosen number 16 by the Detroit Lions during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.The NFL Draft is being held at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

28 APR 2016: Taylor Decker chosen number 16 by the Detroit Lions during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.The NFL Draft is being held at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

The offensive line - ranked as one of the league’s worst - returns four of the five starters, with rookie Taylor Decker taking over at left tackle. A rookie at that position is always a risk, but the line’s biggest weakness was inside, and guards Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson are both back, alongside center Travis Swanson.

None of that bodes well for the running game taking a huge step forward, which means Detroit’s offense is going to rely on Stafford once again. That’s going to be tougher without Megatron, but he’s got an intriguing group of receivers.

Marvin Jones caught 65 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns last season for the Bengals as the No. 2 receiver behind A.J. Green. He’s never been a No. 1, but he showed signs in 2013 of developing into a significant deep threat. He pulled in 51 passes that season at 14.0 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns.

However, he missed the entire 2014 season with foot and ankle injuries and didn’t have as much success in the deep passing game last year.

Behind Jones will be veterans Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. In his first two seasons in Detroit, Tate turned himself into the perfect sidekick to Johnson. He averaged 94 catches for 1,072 yards and five touchdowns, and is likely to play the same role alongside Jones, but there will be one major difference. Whenever Johnson was on the field, he drew so much attention that Tate found it relatively easy to get open 10-12 yards downfield for possession-extending receptions.

Even at 35, Boldin should be able to contribute 60-70 catches for around 750 yards and a handful of touchdowns, but the key to the passing game might be tight end Eric Ebron.

He was the 10th pick of the 2014 draft but only started seven games as a rookie and eight in his second season. He did catch 47 passes for 537 yards and five touchdowns last season, but he’s never shown more than brief flashes of the potential that led to his early draft pick. He was being counted on to take a step forward this season, but an ankle injury early in training camp has left him watching from the sidelines.

He’s likely to be ready for Detroit’s opener in Indianapolis, but no one knows how much he will be able to contribute. If he gives Stafford a fourth significant weapon, that will go a long way toward overcoming the lack of respect that defensive coordinators will be paying the running game. If he doesn’t come through, Stafford and his trio of wide receivers are going to be carrying a massive load.

Lions success depends on Stafford’s throwing arm

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