Phoenix — Taylor Decker certainly looks the part.
The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder possesses the prototypical height, weight and length which make him an ideal candidate to play offensive tackle in the NFL. His athleticism and strength are what have helped him have success in that role.
But according to those who work closely with him, it’s the intangibles that set Decker apart. It’s his intrinsic drive, the will to achieve greatness that’s allowed him to smoothly make the difficult transition from college to the professional ranks, starting at left tackle from day one for the Detroit Lions and more than holding his own where few prove capable so quickly.
“Obviously, for a rookie to come in and play as well as he played, it’s difficult to do,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “He has talent. He has ability. He has the right frame of mind. Obviously, the arrow is trending up for this guy.
“He’s going to keep getting better and better and better,” Caldwell said. “We’re certainly happy to have him. He has all the necessary tools to be a really effective player in this league and he’s headed in that direction. A full offseason will be great for him, but he’s always been a very well-prepared guy. He came in well prepared.”
Decker was groomed at one better talent-producing universities in Ohio State, but that wasn’t enough. He signed on to work with LeCharles Bentley, a former Pro Bowl center who runs an offensive lineman training facility hidden in an industrial park in Chandler, Ariz., a half-hour outside of downtown Phoenix.
Bentley, who has become something of a guru since his 2006 retirement, specializes in biomechanics and nutrition. He welcomes only a select number of players into his club, currently 28, and requires a dedicated commitment to his process, which he feels believes prepares them not only for the rigors of the NFL, but life after football.
Decker, a fellow Ohio State alum, was a natural fit.
“The biggest distinction between the haves and have-nots at this level is the mental makeup,” Bentley said. “He’s got that. It’s important to him to be great. It’s important to him to do all he can to fulfill potential. That’s what separates him.
“He’s really adopted owning each day, owning each rep,” Bentley said. “There isn’t a moment where he isn’t mentally in tune and engaged with what’s going on. From the time he walks into the building, he’s on. There’s no lag.”
Decker played every snap as a rookie, one of 17 players around the NFL that can claim the accomplishment. But just two weeks after the season, he was in Arizona, ready to begin a three-month program with Bentley, leading into the Lions’ offseason program.
The players spend five days per week at the impressively equipped facility, working out for nearly two hours, then sticking around, dissecting film or working with an on-site chiropractor. The group is a close-knit fraternity of like-minded individuals all dedicated to getting better every day.
This offseason is different than last for Decker, when he was preparing for the NFL draft. The travel schedule was brutal after the college campaign, including trips to Indianapolis for the combine, Columbus for his pro day, plus a number of private visits with NFL teams who wanted a closer look at the first-round prospect.
This year, Decker can zero in on self-improvement. He recently bought a home in Arizona for the months he plans on working with Bentley each year.
“It’s nice to have a complete offseason, be in one place and train consistently to build off my rookie season,” Decker said. “I’ve got some solid momentum going and obviously I don’t want last year to be the pinnacle of my career. I don’t want that to be the best I ever was. I’m coming here, just working on getting better.”
In general terms, Bentley explained his current focus for Decker.
“With Taylor, now is our opportunity to tighten some bolts you kind of had to put super glue on last year,” Bentley said. “Part of that process is angles, getting him stronger, more explosive and more dynamic at certain angles.”
Angles are critical to NFL success, but also important to Bentley’s strength program. He places an emphasis on injury prevention for the shoulders and knees, two body parts that tend to shorten linemens’ seasons and careers. A ruptured patella, and a subsequent infection, prematurely ended his own.
Each day, he puts the players through several strength-building exercises, often over a variety of planes, designed to strengthen the muscles around those body parts, preparing for the unnatural physical demands of blocking.
By all appearances the Lions have struck gold with Decker, the fourth offensive tackle drafted last year. As a rookie, he showed consistency as both a pass protector and run blocker. His steady on-field improvement and a drive to build on that during the offseason, is the perfect package.
Along with the additions of Graham Glasgow in the last year’s draft and free agents Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang, general manager Bob Quinn has laid the groundwork to transform Detroit’s offensive line into a strength, for years to come.
Decker is excited to meet his new veteran teammates, to pick their brains and learn from their experiences. It’s another avenue where he sees an opportunity for improvement. Until then, he’s going to focus on his final weeks with Bentley.
“It’s up to me as an individual to get better, holistically,” Decker said. “If I improve, worry about myself, I trust every other guy to do the same exact thing.”