Confident Killebrew poised for breakout year with Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — When attempting to identify a Detroit Lions player poised for a breakout season in 2017, almost everyone who has been polled in the organization lands on the same name: Miles Killebrew.

The second-year safety made modest contributions as a rookie, recording 28 tackles and an interception in 16 games, but it was the way he finished the campaign that got the hype train started down the tracks.

Among those who have said they anticipate a bigger impact from last year’s fourth-round pick have been starting safety Glover Quin, general manager Bob Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell.

Killebrew hopes he’s able to live up to the increased expectations.

“I’ll tell you, man, it’s my goal to have a breakout season this year,” he said after Wednesday’s OTA practice. “If I do well this year, I think it’s a reflection of the leadership on this team. The guys on this team, including Glover Quin, they’re very good at teaching the younger guys — like myself last year — what to do and how to do it correctly. “

With Quin excused from practice to attend to a family matter, and veteran Don Carey nursing an arm injury, it was Killebrew taking the first-team reps alongside Tavon Wilson.

The hulking 6-foot-2, 224-pound defensive back looked comfortable in the role. When Ameer Abdullah charged into the second level, Killebrew yanked a towel from the running back’s waist and tossed it high in the air in one fluid motion, never breaking his downhill stride. The whole sequence was a reflection of his increased confidence.

What a difference from a year ago, when he was still nowhere near wrapping his head around the Lions’ playbook.

“It’s night and day, man,” Killebrew said. “It’s amazing how much more confident you get when you know what you’re doing.”

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Killebrew predictably struggled during the early stages of his rookie season as the Lions trotted him out for a handful of plays each week in a variety of different roles. It wasn’t until midseason when he started executing consistently, carving out a niche as a stopper on third downs.

“It’s no joke when they say the game gets faster at the next level,” he said. “I’m a firm believer you just have to understand the plays, the system, doing your part and really focusing on what you can control. That’s something I had to learn. About halfway through the season it clicked for me that I just had to go out there and do my job, do it well and do it better than the guy across the ball. That’s what I’m trying to do within the scheme.”

Playing those various roles in a variety of packages also contributed to his rapid development. Speaking at the Super Bowl this year, Quin drew parallels to his own rookie season.

“I think that’s the one thing that helped me the most is I played nickel, I played corner, I played safety, I played dime — I played it all,” Quin said. “So when you sit back and put yourself in all those situations, you can say, ‘OK, I know what it’s like to be here. I know what I got to do. This is what that guy is expecting.’ And once you do that, if you really work on your craft, you have no other choice but to take off.”

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For Killebrew, with his rare blend of size and athleticism, he’s been able to soak in how the defense works at different levels.

“It’s one thing to learn the defense from the back end,” Killebrew said. “My coach always calls it the balcony view, getting the far view of the entire defense. But then, to go up into the box, and learn it up close and work backwards, it helped me. I knew what the linebackers were supposed to do because I was down there with them. It helped expedite that process and I was able to do my job easier.”

The expectation is Killebrew’s role continues to expand in 2017. How isn’t quite clear yet. It likely won’t come at the expense of Quin, who hasn’t missed a start in seven seasons. Detroit has shown a willingness to deploy three-safety looks, especially on third downs, and Killebrew could also eat into Wilson’s playing time at strong safety.

Whatever opportunities present themselves, Killebrew intends on being ready. He’s also prepared to deflect praise if he lives up to his increased expectations.

“I’ve been practicing my technique in the offseason, I’m practicing it now, and if I can go out there and showcase it at a high level this year, it’s a reflection of the culture of the coaches and players around me,” he said.