Laken Tomlinson played a key role for the Lions as a rookie, starting 14 games at left guard.
The 28th overall pick in 2015 showed improvement throughout the season, but coach Jim Caldwell said he still has plenty to work on this offseason.
“I can tell you he needs to improve in everything,” Caldwell said.
In discussing Tomlinson throughout the season, Caldwell regularly talked about how young offensive linemen need to learn to play against a variety of different defensive linemen with different tendencies.
“Some he fared well; some he didn’t fare so well,” Caldwell said. “I think those are lessons that you learn along the way, but he’s got the physical characteristics needed. He’s smart; he’s tough mentally. He’s got a ways to go, but he’s the right kind of guy.”
And Tomlinson is aware that he needs to make strides in Year 2. Asked what he wants to improve this offseason, he simply said, “A lot.”
Tomlinson said he doesn’t think he struggled with the speed or strength aspect of the NFL. After playing significantly in the preseason, he felt he made the adjustment before being a Week 1 starter.
However, in talking about Tomlinson near the end of the season, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said most rookies need time to adjust to the speed and talent in the NFL.
“In this league, every guy that rotates in is a really good player, and you’ve got to step up and bring it every snap, every game,” Cooter said. “And I think as rookies, most guys up front, it takes a little bit to kind of get used to that. I think he’s doing a better job adjusting, and hopefully we keep him heading in the right direction.”
The Lions’ offensive line struggled in 2015. The team’s 44 sacks allowed were the 10th most in the NFL, the Lions ranked last in the league in rushing and Tomlinson was a part of those struggles.
For Tomlinson, the toughest adjustment was to his new teammates. Chemistry and communication were a key problem when the offensive line struggled in the first half of the season, but once that improved, Tomlinson said the results did, too.
Earlier in the year, Caldwell said he didn’t expect Tomlinson to play as much as he was playing. Yes, he was a first-round pick, but the Lions also had veteran Manny Ramirez as an option.
Right guard Larry Warford being hurt in Week 1 helped Tomlinson open the season as the starter at left guard and Ramirez at right guard. When Warford returned for Weeks 2 and 3, Ramirez moved to left guard while Tomlinson was on the bench. Warford then sat Weeks 4 and 5, but from Week 6 on, the Lions went with Tomlinson over Ramirez.
“It’s difficult in there,” Caldwell said. “But nevertheless, he’s been able to stand up to the challenge, and he doesn’t back down. He’s getting better.”
Like Caldwell, Tomlinson noted the importance of being able to adjust to different kinds of defensive linemen. He said the best ones he faced as a rookie were Mike Daniels of Green Bay and Aaron Donald of St. Louis.
And Tomlinson said he’ll try to find a way this offseason to prepare for the variety of players and schemes he’ll face in 2016.
“I feel like I learned a lot from playing so much this year,” he said. “I definitely gained a lot of experience, and it’s good for me as a young player to get those reps early. I take every opportunity I have as a learning experience.”